A Case for Innocence | Students, non-profits work to protect rights of accused

Published: Feb. 3, 2016 at 9:51 PM CST
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Boxes sit atop stuffed file cabinets, with more boxes stacked alongside, in a small collection of offices tucked in a corner on the fourth floor of the University of Kansas School of Law.

This is the scene inside the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies. All those files represent the life of a person in a Kansas correctional facility. It is those files that law students will be pouring over to determine if they can make a case to win that person a new trial and another chance at freedom or, at least, a more fair sentence - if it's warranted.

"It's important that we make our system work for everyone - and that has nothing to do with guilt or innocence," said Alice Craig, supervising attorney for the Project for Innocence. "It has to do with the process and making sure everyone's constitutional rights are upheld and that we have a fair system."

A national concern

The national Innocence Project estimates two to five percent of people behind bars in the U.S. are wrongfully incarcerated. In Kansas, where the adult correctional facility population currently sits around 9700, that's as many as 485 inmates.

A network of non-profit groups across the nation work to ensure the people in prison actually belong there. KU's clinic started 51 years ago as one of the first in the nation to set students to work on appeals cases.

"The overall goal is to give students a chance to find out what it's like to have a real client," Beth Cateforis, associate clinical professor, said. "They follow procedures, they use our data base, and it's a way to explore if they really are interested in criminal law."

This semester, some 20 second- and third-year law students will assist in reviewing dozens of cases assigned from the Kansas Appellate Defenders Office for any signs a defendant did not receive a fair trial. They are supervised by Rick Kittel, who works for the office in partnership with KU.

"What the student will do is reading that record as well, trying to spot issues himself or herself, researching those issues, then writing the brief that will be field in the Kansas Court of Appeals," Kittel said. "Working with students keeps things fresh. They come at it with new eyes and have some enthusiasm about it that I think brings a lot to the process."

Getting results

The enthusiasm, though, can be tested by hours of the seemingly mundane. Laying the groundwork for an appeal involves a lot of reading, copying, filing and paperwork. Plus, they are students so they meet regularly as a class to discuss proper procedures, along with case issues.

But those hours can produce results. Questions first researched by KU students are what led an Appeals Court to order a new trial for Kimberly Sharp. One of four people convicted in the 2006 murder of Topeka homeless advocate David Owen, the Court ruled her confession was coerced. She ultimately pleaded to a lesser charge and was released last fall on time served.

Students have about 100 other cases at some point in review. A handful of faculty supervise, bridging the turnover that is inevitable, since the cases can take years to culminate and the court's schedule doesn't adhere to the university's semesters. The faculty also handle most of the actual courtroom work.

Among their 10 cases currently active in court, attorneys with the project are seeking a new trial for Topekan Frank Robinson. He is serving a 36 year sentence for a 2006 fire that killed Marvina Washington. They argue ineffective counsel.

"If someone is sitting in jail and their rights were violated - if the confession was coerced, the attorney didn't put on the expert to actually prove it was arson and not an accidental fire," said project director Jean Phillips, "if those rights don't exist for the Kim Sharps of the world, then they don't exist for the Jean Phillips of the world."

A case for innocence

Sometimes, students do uncover information that raises the question of guilt or innocence. In 2006, the project took on the case of Floyd Bledsoe. Bledsoe was convicted in the 1999 murder of Camille Arfman in Jefferson County, Kansas. The group briefly won his release in 2007, but it wasn't until KU's center partnered with the Midwest Innocence Project in August 2014 that they had the resources to fully pursue new evidence that would eventually exonerate him.

"We looked at DNA testing to see if that was something we could add, and it actually panned out for us," said Tricia Bushnell, MIP's legal director.

Bushnell says it takes more than simply claiming innocence for their organization to accept a client. There's a long application process, with documents screened and evidence reviewed.

"What we're looking for is not whether we believe them, but if we can prove it," Bushnell said.

Bushnell recently joined the legal team for Steven Avery, a case capturing national attention through the Netflix documentary

Making a Murderer

. Bushnell says MIP isn't after headlines, but there's a reason they get them.

"The reason why each case strikes us as extreme is because it is," she said. "This is where things went wrong and we have to be here to fix it."

Finding advocates

At KU, it starts with the students advocating for inmates.

"Most of (the inmates) won't have anyone, let alone an attorney and two or three interns working on their case," Craig said.

For students, it's a way to get experience they will not find in a book.

"We actually went to the prison last semester and interviewed a client for two hours - that's not something you gain from regular law school classes," Heather Ford, a second year law student, said. "(My goal) is to make a difference in the lives of a few. Eventually, it will turn into many."

Fellow second-year law student Nick Hayes agrees.

"It's a way for me to be of service while I'm in law school," Hayes said. "I think that the system works but, like everything, it's not infallible."

Checking the system

At the end of the day, the faculty says, that is the goal. They may look for its faults, but say our judicial system is one in which they believe.

"We lose most of those (appeals) cases and we probably should because there's evidence there to support the verdict of the jury," Kittel said. "But sometimes we find errors that demonstrate the client didn't get a fair trial. Even if a case is reversed on appeal, that's an indication the system works because we have these measures in place that somebody can file an appeal to test the jury verdict."

"I want my students to understand that those rights are there for a reason and they need to be followed. They need to be followed by everybody," Phillips said. "If the jury comes back and says, 'This person committed this crime,' I'm find with that - that the rights were protected and the system works."

To date, more than 300 people in the U.S. have been exonerated through DNA evidence.

Floyd Bledsoe spent 16 years in prison. 13 NEWS speaks with him about how he is adjusting to freedom and his thoughts on what changes are needed in the legal system. 13 NEWS also looks at the actions his case set in motion, from the sheriff's office to the Statehouse. See the special report Thursday on 13 NEWS at 10.