Thursday, February 21, 2008

USA Today Highlights Importance of the Innocence Project

USA Today published a remarkably comprehensive article this week surrounding the efforts of the Innocence Project and its affiliates to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. The article begins by focusing on Charles Chatman's adjustment to freedom. Chatman was recently exonerated by DNA testing after serving 27 years in the Texas prison system for a crime he did not commit.

Each of the six rooms in his new apartment, including the bathroom, is larger than any of his previous cells. The gleaming entertainment system and sleek laptop from family, friends and attorneys might as well be hollow props on a movie set, because Chatman, 47, has little idea how to operate them — testimony to more than a generation lost behind bars.

It is the increasing instances of stories like Chatman's that, according to USA Today, is sparking a new urgency across the country to secure the release of wrongfully convicted individuals. The article cites many examples of this new cooperation with the Innocence Project, but I found this one to be the most striking.

•In what may be the most aggressive move by a local prosecutor, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has turned over more than 400 files to law students working for the Innocence Project of Texas. The students are reviewing decisions by previous administrations to reject requests for DNA testing.

Watkins, Dallas County's first African-American district attorney, says opening the files may have been his easiest decision since being sworn in last year, even in a state where politicians have a reputation for supporting aggressive law-and-order policies.

"The reason I'm here is a result of what happened in the past," Watkins says. He cites a tradition of aggressive prosecution in Dallas and routine denials of prisoners' requests for post-conviction reviews, which he says shrouded past errors. Those errors have emerged, Watkins says, largely because the local forensics laboratory preserved the biological evidence at issue in many of the recent challenges by prisoners.

For many places, a review of convictions such as that in Dallas County is not possible because physical evidence has not been preserved. The lack of uniform preservation standards is a big concern among advocates for post-conviction challenges, says Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

But for Watkins, the available evidence offered "an opportunity to restore the credibility of this office."

If you have the chance, please go check out the entire article . There is so much to this complex problem and the writer does a very good job of describing the impact wrongful imprisonment has on a person and the numerous barriers to post-conviction reviews.

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