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A Battle Against Miscarriages of Justice

Summer 2013 saw the first Irish Innocence Project’s first interns travel to the USA to investigate miscarriages of justice there.

This year Griffith Law Student Sinead McGinley was chosen to intern with the California Innocence Project in San Diego. Below, in her own words, she shares some insights into her experience and reveals the essential work undertaken by innocence projects worldwide that would not be possible if it weren’t for the countless hours given by interns and pro bono lawyers and caseworkers.

 

The California Innocence Project in San Diego is one of the oldest innocence projects in existence. Founded in 1999, the project reviews over 2,000 cases a year. Believe me, it feels like a lot more! The sheer volume of mail and phone calls we received every morning  from prisoners requesting help,  just in the three weeks I was there, was more than any one person could ever hope to answer, not to mention the hours needed to research and progress each individual case accepted by the project. Luckily there are numerous lawyers, caseworkers and interns dedicating their time to the cause. The Director of the California Innocence Project, Professor Justin Brooks, co-founded the project in 1999. He has a CV anybody would kill for, myself included! The same can be said for the project’s other co-founder, Jan Stiglitz. The project also has a number of other employees including five staff attorneys, twelve caseworkers and up to three interns. It is the most established Innocence Project that I have had the opportunity to participate with.

The interns spend much of their time answering the massive amounts of mail that come into the office each year; they gather and scan new documents and input them onto the Project’s database. Once all of the essential documents have been acquired the case is then passed onto any caseworker who has an open slot. Each caseworker works around five active cases at a time which requires that they read all of the evidence, seek out any requisite physical evidence still in existence, report on their findings and determine the next step for the case. One of the documents most heavily relied on by this particular Project is the Appellants Opening Brief (AOB). This document provides all of the information put forward for the case without the bias of the inmate. The San Diego Innocence Project makes its final determination on whether to move forward with a case or not based on the AOB.

Reading through hundreds of letters you start to notice a common theme with convictions. Many of the letters I read had stilted English, illegible handwriting, a complete lack of grammar, and occasionally the writer didn’t speak any English at all. It was almost immediately evident that prison has a severe lack of well-educated prisoners. While we would like to think that this is because most educated people are too smart to commit crimes (or to get caught) it is more likely because of the correlation between lack of education and those incarcerated. Most of these inmates were arrested because they fit a generic description or because they were easy targets. Some had committed previous crimes and it was easy for another charge to be tacked on at the end, and while many inmates claim innocence with some tale or another, these ‘mishaps’ happen more often than anyone should be comfortable with. Traditionally, it is the underprivileged who suffer more injustices, those who can’t afford the legal defence they need or were just born into the wrong race but the reality is that injustice can happen to anyone.

Study a law course in Dublin and challenge wrongful convictions

One of the most well-known cases of the California Innocence Project is that of Brian Banks. Banks was a rising football star with a promising future but at the age of seventeen he was accused of rape and kidnapping. The supposed victim also sued the school district for facilitating the crime and won $1.5 million. Brian Banks served over five years in prison for a crime he did not commit before the ‘victim’ recanted her story and the judge reversed the conviction. This particular miscarriage of justice ruined a teenager’s future and cost the state over $200,000 and it is only one of hundreds of cases of wrongful incarceration, the victims of which have in some cases served up to  20 years in jail. The California Innocence Project has also represented a number of clients overseas like the Huangs who were accused of murdering their daughter and are currently imprisoned in Qatar.

It is easy to see the necessity of the Innocence Project, especially in the United States, when you look at the statistics. The United States ranks second highest when it comes to death sentences and fourth for the total number of executions between 2007 and 2012. But it’s not fair to blame the whole U.S., as a mere four states make up 75% of the total executions.  As if the high number of executions wasn’t enough, Courts are reluctant to grant clemency or admit their mistakes when it comes to miscarriages of justice. In 2007, a $101.7 million judgment was made for the wrongful conviction of four men, two of whom died in prison, yet the suspect convictions keep rolling in.

There are a number of causes that lead to a miscarriage of justice: eyewitness misidentification, faulty DNA, bad forensic science, coerced confessions, or sometimes it is caused by bad lawyers, police or government misconduct. There can often be a number of these things included in the one case. Many convictions depend on eye witness testimony; an account by a bystander of what they witnessed first-hand. Unfortunately this kind of testimony is often unreliable. A friend of my family was at a gathering organised by the Innocence Project where a woman gave a lecture on eyewitness testimony. As she started her speech a handyman came up on stage to fix the sound equipment. He was making all sorts of noises and eventually the woman stopped her speech until he finished his work. A little while later the woman projected a number of photos onto a screen and asked the crowd to point out which one was of the handyman. A number of tables were certain that they could pick out the right picture; it turned out that none of the pictures were of the handyman. Would you want to convict a person on the basis of eyewitness testimony? According to the Innocence Project, it is the greatest cause of wrongful convictions worldwide "playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing."  In the case of coerced confessions, the suspects are often fed intimate details (knowingly or not) by the police during hours of interrogation and ultimately relay back the story they were told. Mandatory recording of all interrogations would greatly reduce the number of coerced confessions and is highly recommended by the Innocence Project, however, it is still up to the judge which recordings can be admitted into the trial. 

As if crimes weren't hard enough to solve, police and lawyers then have to deal with lying witnesses and victims. To any normal person it seems counterproductive as a victim to lie, unless you are not truly a victim and merely intended to incarcerate a person of your choosing. The point of prison time is to get a dangerous individual off the streets and away from the public. This should be most desired by the victim and their loved ones so as to avoid any repeat crimes when they know the impact such crimes can have. Witnesses can be coerced into making false statements by police, prosecutors or members of the public with an interest in the crime, or make deals on the basis of their testimony against a certain person.

Even when witnesses later recant their statements, any further testimony by them for either side will be met with accusations of lying as they will no longer be credible.

The Innocence Project steps in on a case when all other options have been exhausted. They were not there to witness the trial; if they knew of the case before the appeal then they probably did not have the manpower to have someone present at it. The evidence for each case is always a number of years old, sometimes more than ten or fifteen years. It seems as if the Innocence Project always begins a case at a disadvantage and struggles uphill from there but the people who work for and volunteer with the project believe it's a worthwhile battle; they often go unpaid or work for very little. But when an innocent person is released from prison it makes the battle worth it.

- Article by Sinead McGinley, Griffith College LLB (Hons) student & Irish Innocence Project Caseworker

 

California Innocence Project Success – November 2014

Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple from Los Angeles, California who moved to Qatar with their three adopted young children in 2012, have finally been reunited with their sons after 2 years of wrongful imprisonment and detainment in Qatar after their daughter died unexpectedly in Doha.

Read about their story.

Give Your Support

The Irish Innocence Project has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for its work.

As part of this campaign, the inaugural Irish Innocence Project International Conference On Wrongful Convictions, Human Rights And Student Experience, and the Wrongful Conviction Film Festival will both take place in Dublin on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th June 2015.

The conference and film festival will be the first of their kind. This is your chance to contribute to challenging wrongful convictions and raising awareness of this important issue. If it is possible for you to donate a small amount we urge you to do so and to join our campaign, Be The Key: Set An Innocent Free. You can be the key!

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