Guilty Until Proven Innocent
To: Ms. Heather Ring
Innocence Project of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minn.
Dear Ms. Ring:
Many of us believe that those convicted of serious crimes are in fact guilty as charged. And then science and technology, as it often does, up-ends that view. The application of DNA testing to evidence used to convict, particularly in murder cases, has led to some startling results. Your organization, the Innocence Project of Minnesota (ipmn.org) will act in Minnesota cases where clear evidence of innocence is present. The Innocence Project provides legal representation for free, relying on charitable donations to support its work.
Work by the Innocence Project has led to the freeing of 333 wrongfully convicted people, and most spectacularly, 20 who spent time on death row. These cases are complicated and often involve ambiguous circumstances. The recent documentary, Making a Murderer, about the murder conviction of Steve Avery in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, underscored those complexities. People falsely convicted of capital crimes are disproportionately male and a member of minority groups. Some studies have suggested that as many as 4 percent of those sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 were probably innocent.
In some cases, the death penalty is the result of idiosyncratic death-seeking prosecutors, willing to engage in trial misconduct. the New York Times editorialized that five prosecutors were responsible for approximately one out of every seven death row inmates nationwide. One of these prosecutors, Robert Massey (Oklahoma County district attorney) once became so upset at an acquitting jury that he approached the jury and reached for his gun. Half of his convictions were overturned, and he was found guilty by a court of appeals of misconduct in one-third of those convictions. Three people that Massey sent to death row were later exonerated. In fact, a federal Appeals Court, in reviewing Mr. Massey’s persistent misconduct noted that said conduct “harms the reputation of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.”
Thankfully, Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911, following the grisly and botched execution of William Williams. The Innocence Project of Minnesota has taken up a number of non-death-penalty cases, including Michael Hansen’s. When it became involved, Hansen had served seven years of a 14-year sentence for killing his 3-month- old daughter. Experts working with the Innocence Project established that she had not died of blunt-force trauma, but accidentally. Mr. Hansen has gone back to running his small business. He tearfully testified at the Joint House/Senate Subcommittee on the trauma in his life and the loss of family relationships resulting from his conviction. (You can hear his testimony at bit.ly/2a3asEu.)
Koua Fong Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry when it accelerated at a St. Paul freeway exit ramp, crashing into two vehicles and ultimately killing a man and two children. Lee maintained his innocence and claimed that the car had suddenly accelerated uncontrollably. He was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. Two years later, Toyota revealed that some of its cars had reported uncontrolled acceleration. The Innocence Project of Minnesota and students working through the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School uncovered evidence that Lee’s Toyota had malfunctioned. In the face of this evidence, a new trial was ordered and the prosecution decided to drop the charges. Koua Lee had served nearly eight years in prison.
How do wrongful convictions happen? The Innocence Project studies this question and helps suggest best practices, but the most common reason is false eyewitness identification. Eyewitness identification has been shown to be unreliable—particularly where the eyewitness has been “purchased” or coerced by investigators. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Barry Gibbs case in New York. Gibbs was wrongfully convicted in the 1986 murder of Virginia Robertson. It was later established that this conviction was based on coerced testimony by NYPD detective Louis Eppolito (later convicted for serving as a mob hit man on the side). The Innocence Project established the facts and Gibbs was exonerated in 2006. In June 2010, he was awarded $9.9 million, the largest civil rights settlement from the City of New York at that time.
When you read the cases which the Innocence Project has taken on, it becomes more difficult to view the convicted as a group that could never include oneself. I have driven a Toyota Camry, for example. What the government owes all of us, hopefully, is an error-free trial, professional and unbiased prosecutors, and impartial judges. These conditions do not always exist, hence the importance of groups like the Innocence Project and its affiliates.
We have many protections against a government gone wrong, chief among them an independent judiciary and prosecutors with integrity. But the Innocence Project is a very needed counterweight when the scales of justice have been improperly tilted in the wrong direction. It is an organization that does important work and is deserving of our support.
Thank you for the work you do.
Vance K. Opperman
Innocent of all charges
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.