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Corey Ann Finn is a third-year law student at the University of Denver College of Law. Finn is the 2002 Hill & Robbins, P.C. Fellow and worked for the Colorado Lawyers Committee in the summer of 2002.
More than 100 wrongfully convicted inmates have been freed by "Innocence Projects" nationwide since 1991.1 Now Colorado has its own Innocence Project. James E. Scarboro, a partner in the Denver office of Arnold & Porter, created the Colorado Innocence Project ("Project") under the sponsorship of the Colorado Lawyers Committee. In addition to volunteers from Lawyers Committee member firms, Scarboro has recruited individuals from the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Colorado Public Defender’s Office, Alternate Defense Counsel’s Office, Federal Public Defender’s Office, University of Colorado School of Law, and University of Denver College of Law to help screen and investigate claims of innocence by Colorado’s prisoners.
Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld started the first Innocence Project as a student clinic at Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York. In addition to the clinic, Scheck and Neufeld had the vision of creating an "Innocence Network" to help exonerate wrongly imprisoned inmates across the country. Today, there are more than thirty Innocence Projects, most of which are hosted by law schools.2
The work done by these volunteers to overturn wrongful convictions has the potential to expose and improve weaknesses in the criminal justice system. In the first seventy wrongful convictions identified by the network of Innocence Projects, mistaken identification, police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, and bad lawyering were some of the causes of wrongful convictions.3 Many Innocence Projects also promote much-needed legislation regarding post-conviction preservation of physical evidence and the availability of DNA testing for inmates.
Purpose and Scope
While the purpose of Innocence Projects is to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, projects vary in their scope. The Cardozo Innocence Project takes only cases in which there is possible exculpatory DNA evidence, while other projects look for any claim of a wrongful conviction. The Colorado Innocence Project looks for inmates with strong claims of actual innocence. The Project has a preference for cases in which possible exculpatory physical evidence (not necessarily DNA) exists. The Project is limited to individuals convicted in Colorado, but is in touch with other Innocence Projects around the country and, where applicable, refers an out-of-state conviction to the appropriate Innocence Project.
Early in 2002, The Denver Post published a story about the Colorado Innocence Project.4 Almost immediately, the Project was flooded with letters. The Project has received between 300 and 400 letters from inmates requesting assistance. Wrongful convictions for murder, sex abuse, and robbery are the most common crimes addressed by these letters.
The Project’s screening committee initially reviews letters received by the Project. If the committee believes the letter includes a reasonable claim of actual innocence, a questionnaire is sent to the inmate. The questionnaire asks about the crime of which the inmate was convicted, the defense used at trial, the evidence presented at trial, and any other relevant information. The completed questionnaire also functions as a release, allowing members of the screening committee to talk to the attorneys involved in the initial defense.
After receiving a completed questionnaire, the screening committee reviews many factors, including: (1) whether the inmate has post-conviction representation; (2) whether physical evidence in the case has been preserved, lost, or destroyed; and (3) whether the case has any of the common earmarks for wrongful convictions, such as convictions based on informant testimony, mistaken identification, or bad science. Generally, the screening committee prefers cases involving a guilty verdict, rather than a guilty plea by the inmate. The screening committee also is reluctant to put too much energy into cases in which the inmate will not be freed from prison even if exonerated by the Colorado Innocence Project (because of other convictions) or cases in which the inmate soon will be released without the Project’s help.
The Project often receives letters from inmates who do not claim actual innocence, but have some other legal claim. As Scarboro states: "When I see a case that sort of cries out for some sort of help—let’s say somebody is just challenging the sentence, but they are not challenging the underlying conviction—I do try, within very severe limits, to see if I can find someone to help."5
Scarboro states, "We’re still very much in the preliminary stages [of the Project]."6 Due to the enormous volume of requests for help, the Project has dedicated most of its energy to screening letters and questionnaires. After an inmate’s questionnaire passes initial review of the screening committee, members of the screening committee and students from the law schools look into the inmate’s conviction by speaking to the inmate’s family members and the attorneys who handled the case. Currently, approximately twenty cases are at some stage of investigation by screening committee members.
When the Project finds strong cases through initial investigation, the screening committee will connect inmates with local firms that have agreed to take such cases on a pro bono basis. The Project already has referred two promising cases to area law firms: Faegre & Benson LLP and Holland & Hart LLP. The Project plans to work closely with these firms as they use their resources to investigate the cases and pursue legal action to exonerate their clients.
The Innocence Network has demonstrated that innocent people have been wrongfully convicted. The Colorado Innocence Project has taken on the complicated task of finding and helping Colorado inmates with strong claims of innocence. Jim Scarboro and the other Project volunteers have devoted considerable energy to establishing the Project. Significant pro bono effort will be required to identify and exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates in Colorado.
1. For a complete list of exonerated inmates, see www.innocence
2. Many of the projects are referenced at www.innocenceproject. org/about/other_projects.php.
3. See www.innocenceproject.org/causes/index.php.
4. McPhee, "Help for Innocent Inmates," The Denver Post (Nov. 16, 2001).
5. Interview with James E. Scarboro, July 10, 2002.