Six years ago, I crossed the line from “pure” criminal justice journalism by adding advocacy to my freelance life. I became a director of the Midwestern Innocence Project, then a struggling organization at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, about 120 miles west of my home in Columbia, Missouri.
We are still struggling.
The Midwestern Innocence Project, for all its good intentions and tangible virtues, is so underfinanced and understaffed that every month we fall further behind investigating claims. And we are not alone. Despite the promising expansion of innocence projects around the country–about 55 today–many states are not served well by innocence projects, mostly because finding adequate funding has been so arduous.
It's worthwhile, therefore, to take a broader look at the current state of those projects–particularly from the point of view of a journalist who has become involved from the inside.
As a solo freelance journalist, and before that a newspaper and magazine staff writer, I could not handle more than two investigations of alleged wrongful convictions simultaneously. They are labor-intensive and financially costly. Finding publication outlets for the stories is never guaranteed. I had thought that by working within an innocence project while continuing to research cases outside the project as a journalist, I could accomplish more on behalf of inmates–and on behalf of crime victims whose murderers and rapists had never been accurately identified.
A flood of claims
But I went from feelings of guilt about making such a small dent as a journalist in the claims of actual innocence arriving from prisoners to another form of guilt. Instead of dealing with a steady trickle (but nonetheless overwhelming number) of claims that come haphazardly to an individual journalist, our project now has to cope with a flood of such claims, with few resources.
When I started my journalism career in 1969, if I heard rumors about innocent inmates, I usually dismissed them with the thought that all prisoners proclaim innocence. Why believe them after they have been arrested by police, charged by prosecutors, identified by victims and witnesses, defended by lawyers, convicted by juries, sentenced by judges and rejected by appellate courts?
Before DNA testing became sophisticated enough to prove innocence beyond a doubt, many journalists operated with a similar mindset. We did not perform our jobs well enough to know that as early as 1932, Yale University law professor Edwin Borchard had demonstrated that wrongful convictions happened year after year in jurisdictions across the United States. (His book carried the provocative title “Convicting the Innocent; Sixty-Five Actual Errors of Criminal Justice.”) Nor did we realize that during the late 1940s, lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, famous because of his Perry Mason courtroom novels, devoted his fortune to establishing the “Court of Last Resort,” now unfortunately defunct, which helped dozens of innocent inmates win freedom.
My shift in thinking began when I became executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors in 1983. A small percentage of the 5,000 journalists who had joined IRE since its founding eight years earlier were already uncovering wrongful convictions by listening to inmates, obtaining trial transcripts, re-interviewing witnesses, locating previously undisclosed documents, and generally piecing together the truths that should have been the province of police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors and judges.
At the time, appellate lawyers tended to shun the difficult task of getting back into court with post-conviction actual innocence claims, That meant either journalists served as the court of last resort, or lots of inmates claiming innocence had nowhere to turn.
Print and broadcast journalists began to succeed in proving innocence from time to time, with perhaps the most sustained, impressive effort by reporters Maurice Possley, Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills at the Chicago Tribune during the 1990s and into the new century. But journalists obviously could not literally free innocent inmates from prison without the cooperation of prosecutors and judges.
Filling the void
Slowly, what became known as innocence projects filled the void. In Princeton, New Jersey, a businessman undergoing a mid-career shift to the pastorate stumbled upon the wrongful conviction phenomenon while serving a prison ministry. Operating solo at first, James McCloskey learned the law and taught himself detective work before forming Centurion Ministries in the early 1980s. He painstakingly raised money from individual donors and found lawyers to help at reduced hourly rates. As of 2010, Centurion Ministries had played a significant role in freeing more than 50 innocent inmates.
Even with a staff of six plus volunteers from the Princeton area, Centurion Ministries can accept only a few dozen cases per year, leaving thousands waiting. Even cases that look compelling might sit for 10 years before they receive a full work-up.
Ten years after McCloskey started Centurion Ministries, New York City lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld established The Innocence Project at the Yeshiva University law school in New York. Their innovation: a focus on cases with testable DNA evidence, as the dependable analysis of genetic material from crime scenes matured. Their innocence project has played significant roles in more than 250 exonerations.
In 2003, The Innocence Project separated from Yeshiva University and went out on its own as a not-for-profit entity. About 20 Yeshiva law students per year still receive academic credit for helping investigate claims of innocence, and Scheck remains a full-time law faculty member. Today, it is by far the largest innocence project in the nation, in terms of cases received, investigations undertaken, budget and staff. As of April 2010, there were 49 paid staff, nine of them lawyers. This month it was awarded the John Jay Medal for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Another high-visibility innocence project resides at Northwestern University. Journalism professor David Protess has marshaled students who helped engineer exonerations in exchange for academic credit. Sometimes Protess and the journalism students find help from lawyers at a wrongful conviction center that started during 1999 within the Northwestern law school. A key person in the law school: Rob Warden, former crusading editor of Chicago Lawyer magazine, a book co-author with Protess, and an individual with encyclopedic knowledge of where, why and how wrongful convictions occur.
(Last year, the Cook County, Illinois, prosecutor filed a lawsuit against Protess and his students, seeking to discover whether they improperly paid witnesses during an investigation into an alleged wrongful conviction. The legal threat is real, but also so unusual–and possibly vindictive–that it seems like a remote worry at other innocence projects. After all, most prosecutors would rather devote their time to solving crimes rather than going after students and professors investigating in the interest of justice. Furthermore, most prosecutors prefer to avoid negative media coverage that results from seemingly harassing university students.)
Funding shortages bedevil the innocence project in Missouri every day. From the start, we agreed we would try to expand the Midwestern Innocence Project across the state of Missouri, using the University of Missouri four-campus system as our initial vehicle. I obtained an audience with Elson Floyd, the president of the four-campus (Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis, Rolla) system. An African-American who had faced down plenty of racial hatred, Floyd understood wrongful convictions occur disproportionately to minorities. Seeing the university as an engine of justice and pleased with the interdisciplinary approach I presented, Floyd allocated $100,000 per year for each of three years.
Law professors (especially Ellen Suni and Sean O'Brien), private-practice lawyers (especially at the Stinson Morrison firm downtown) and laypeople already involved at the Kansas City-based Midwestern Innocence Project would continue to participate. The project would expand, however, with the other key players located at the Columbia campus law school (experienced defense lawyer/professor Rod Uphoff in the leading role) and the Columbia campus journalism school. Professor Jody Miller of the criminology faculty on the St. Louis campus also became involved.
The money from the system budget allowed us to advertise for a lawyer who would train students, hire staff (if we could raise additional money), devise a process for screening inmates seeking assistance, direct field investigations, and litigate in court to overturn wrongful convictions if any of our cases made it that far. The winning candidate: Tiffany Murphy, a University of Michigan law school alumna employed as a federal public defender in Las Vegas. She moved to Kansas City during late 2007.
Since then, Murphy–a brilliant classroom teacher, brainy lawyer in her early 30s, of African-American heritage–has barely relaxed. She trains students at the UMKC law school, while Uphoff does the same at the other law school and I do something similar at the journalism school. Then we team the students for field investigations on the cases given priority by Murphy.
From the hundreds of prisoners who send a completed questionnaire despite its length and difficulty of material, Murphy decides which cases look most like candidates for exonerations. Then students plus community volunteers gather information about those cases. Accepting more than a dozen news cases per year can overtax the meager budget, so numerous worthy applicants must wait and wait some more.
Training students, then training a new crew when the previous team members graduate before closing cases, is inefficient. But it fulfills an educational mission, and it plants seeds within law and journalism. Thanks to the generosity of the Stinson law firm, the university system, private donors and two fundraising dinners featuring a selfless bestselling author-lawyer named John Grisham, the Midwestern Innocence Project hired recent law school graduate Ken Blucker as Murphy's colleague.
As I write this, though, it is doubtful whether we can afford to pay Blucker's modest salary for another year.
The Midwestern Innocence Project might be within reach of an exoneration during 2010. We cannot control the pace once the case re-enters court, needless to say. Judges, prosecutors, police agencies and state attorneys general rarely greet us warmly—and then they delay. After all, we are sabotaging the finality on which the criminal justice system is based.
Whatever happens to the Midwestern Innocence Project, I will continue to report and write about apparent wrongful convictions and their causes as a freelance reporter. The satisfaction of pulling together the clues until a pattern emerges is one of the most satisfying professional pursuits I can imagine. For me, solo investigative reporting is like breathing, and I do not want to stop breathing.
But helping supervise teams of journalism students, law students and occasionally students from other disciplines is satisfying, too. Training them is an investment in the future. Local criminal justice systems around the nation will operate more cleanly when there are lawyers, journalists and other college graduates who grasp how and why wrongful convictions occur. Along the way, we will surely help the cause of justice as we delve into cases that nobody else could or would accept–and perhaps enjoy the satisfaction of watching an innocent inmate walk out of prison.
Steve Weinberg is a free-lance journalist and blogger based in Columbia, Mo. Please read more of his work at his blog “In Justice.”