I visited the University of Washington School of Law back in April. What I found at UW was a strong commitment to freeing the innocent. In 1997, Jacqueline McMurtrie founded the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at UW. Overall, the IPNW has helped overturn 15 convictions for prisoners in Washington State. In addition to assisting the wrongfully convicted, the IPNW has taught students how to advocate on behalf of clients. Students have appeared in Washington State trial and appellate courts, and at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Shon: So Professor McMurtrie, what made you decide to start an Innocence Project?
Jacqueline: Several different factors led to my decision to start an Innocence Project. At the time, a few projects around the country were achieving success in freeing innocent people from prison. The Innocence Project in New York – founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld – was exonerating people using new DNA technology. And, Northwestern was freeing people from death row. When I watched the documentary What Jennifer Saw in 1996 (telling the story of Jennifer Thompson who erroneously identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist) it reinforced the notion that innocent people can be convicted even when everyone in the system is doing their job properly. And we know that the probability of a wrongful conviction has to increase when people aren’t doing their jobs properly. I learned that lesson as a public defender, when I represented an innocent client on a murder charge. We were able to get the charge dismissed, because we found bus tickets and phone records proving our client was in a different state when the murder occurred. But, it would have been easy to convict him, had we not done the investigative work. So, I started the IPNW as a volunteer organization without any kind of strategic plan – but with a sense that it was the right thing to do.
Shon: What types of cases has IPNW taken in the last year or so?
Jacqueline: My students and I have primarily focused on post-conviction DNA cases in the last year. We just learned that the prosecutor is agreeing to DNA testing in one of our recently filed cases, which is wonderful news for our client. We are filing a motion on behalf of another client this week which, absent an agreement, my student will argue next month. We have a couple of non-DNA cases where the main issue revolves around whether our clients received effective assistance of counsel. And, 2010 was an exceptionally good year for the IPNW and our clients. We had 3 DNA exonerations of clients whose cases we undertook in 2002. The men served over 43 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. They are great guys – but all are struggling financially. Washington does not have a wrongful conviction compensation statute and so they got nothing when they were released from prison. In February, my students and our clients testified in support of a bill that would have enacted a compensation statute in Washington. It passed easily out of the policy committee, but did not pass out of the fiscal committee. So, we have our work cut out for us next year.
Shon: Can you explain the types of skills that students learn while participating in your clinic? And how those skills will serve them well as practicing attorneys?
Jacqueline: Students get hands-on experience interviewing and counseling clients, developing facts, drafting motions and briefs, negotiating, and presenting appellate arguments. They develop skills in interviewing, negotiation, fact-investigation, trial preparation, collaboration and problem-solving. Next year, the IPNW will partner with the Legislative Advocacy Clinic to train students in legislative and public policy advocacy on innocence project issues. Students will learn about the legislative process and bill drafting. They will build a legislative agenda and work with coalitions. Students will advocate in the state legislature to develop and move legislation and respond to proposed legislation. The types of skills students develop in the clinic will serve them well regardless of what type of law they end up practicing.
Shon: From your experiences, I am wondering what you think are the main reasons for why erroneous convictions occur? Is it faulty eyewitness testimony? Overzealous prosecutors? Or something else?
Jacqueline: The leading cause of erroneous convictions is mistaken eyewitness identification. It has been identified as the leading factor of wrongful convictions in every study that has been conducted since the early 1900’s. More recently, mistaken eyewitness identification has contributed to more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.
Shon: Can you explain what types of cases you are looking for and requirements you have for accepting a case?
Jacqueline: We accept cases of individuals who were convicted of crimes in Washington State, who are serving long prison terms, who no longer have a right to court-appointed counsel, who are indigent and who profess that they did not have any involvement whatsoever with the crime. So, we won’t take cases of people who claim self-defense or consent as a defense in a rape case. It is very difficult to overturn a conviction and we have to find compelling evidence of innocence either through the potential of DNA testing, or through new evidence that was not presented at trial. We end up reviewing and rejecting far more cases than we accept.
Shon: Thanks Professor McMurtrie. And I wish you more success in advocating for the wrongly convicted.
Jacqueline: Thank you Shon. I am delighted that you and your family are coming to Seattle to join the UWLS community next year. I look forward to seeing you and hope to have the opportunity to work with you in the IPNW Clinic!