Where the law is a matter of life and death

Mon, Nov 26, 2012, 00:00

Irish volunteers are assisting the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners in US

The Innocence Project has played a key role in freeing 300 people in the US for crimes they did not commit. Now in its 20th year, three young Irish barristers spent their summer participating in the project.

LaMonte Armstrong, a 62-year-old man wrongly convicted for the 1988 murder of his former professor, was last month released from prison after authorities discovered evidence that law officers and prosecutors hid key details from defence lawyers during his trial. He had spent 17 years in prison despite being innocent.

Duke University’s wrongful convictions clinic, which is a part of the Innocence Project, worked tirelessly with Armstrong to get his case heard in court and assisting them was 29-year-old Irish barrister Alicia Hayes.

“The biggest thing that struck me was that there is no real way to undo the wrong done to them. LaMonte lost 17 years of his life. His mother died without knowing he was ever innocent and his daughter grew up believing her dad was a murderer,” she said.

The Innocence Project is a nationwide legal network that works to exonerate innocent prisoners through DNA testing. Irish barristers Joanne Kirby, Alicia Hayes and Hilary Lennox say the project is changing the US justice system for the better, by encouraging greater analysis of evidence and freeing the innocent.

The organisation’s efforts to free people wrongfully convicted date to 1992, when attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, both members of OJ Simpson’s defence team, established the Innocence Project as part of Yeshiva University’s school of law.

Since its inception the group has helped exonerate 300 people of crimes they didn’t commit, including 18 people on death row. It now has some 6,000 cases before it for review, extending across 30 states. One of those exonerated was Ray Krone, an honourably discharged veteran, who served 10 years in Phoenix for a murder he did not commit.

An expert for the prosecution had testified that bite marks on the victim matched an impression Krone made for police on a Styrofoam cup. With help from the Innocence Project, DNA evidence cleared him in 2002.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing though.

It’s difficult, as judges will look for any reason not to exonerate someone, Limerick-native Joanne Kirby says, adding: “It’s often not enough just to show the person 100 per cent did not commit the crime. You have to show who did before the innocent person can be freed. You need to find the perpetrator.”

She spent the summer working with the Ohio innocence project.

“I visited someone convicted of five murders. He was awaiting the death penalty but had no execution date. He said to me: ‘You’re from Ireland? I saw Martin McGuinness shake hands with the Queen today.’ I was very surprised someone on death row was that clued in to international politics.”

Exoneration takes time

It can take years to exonerate an innocent person, according to Dublin barrister Hilary Lennox, who says the project thus far only focuses on people serving lengthy sentences.

“It’s worth our while working on cases which involve lengthy sentences. In Ireland you could be out in seven years which is the length of time it would take us to investigate, to do the DNA testing, to bring the appeal. Thus, the focus is on people with 75-year sentences, or even 200-year sentences.”

A further problem encountered by the project when investigating cases is a lack of remaining evidence, as often the evidence is destroyed after a certain period.

Preserving evidence

None of the 300 DNA exonerations would have been possible had the biological evidence not been available to test, according to Lennox.

That said, while approximately half of US states have created legislation that compels the automatic preservation of evidence upon conviction of a defendant, most of these laws are limited.

Many state statutes restrict both the timeframes for required retention and the crime categories for which evidence must be preserved. Other statutes only require the retention of evidence upon the effective date of their passage, legally allowing states to destroy old evidence attached to either innocence claims or old, unsolved cases.

“Evidence was inexplicably lost or destroyed in a number of cases, which makes things extremely difficult for the project,” Hayes says.

What’s more, innocent people can often be convicted on very little evidence, according to Lennox.

“The scary thing is often there is no evidence to connect the person convicted to the crime and yet they are still convicted.

“There was one case where a man with no previous convictions served 10 years in prison for something he didn’t do based purely on the testimony of a young child,” she adds.

But the people applying for help from the Innocence Project aren’t always innocent.

“There was one case the project had done DNA testing on and the result came back just before I returned to Ireland. It showed the person was 100 per cent the perpetrator. That was very difficult and upsetting for the Innocence Project, as they’d spent two years investigating and working on the case,” Lennox says.

However, while each exoneration is a success for the Innocence Project, it is also a failure according to Lennox – a failure of the criminal justice system in the US.

“What’s terrifying about the American legal system is that your whole life can change forever just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says.

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