Fighting for justice
28 wrongfully convicted people freed with help from law school group
Editor’s Note: Today, The Times Leader launches a three-part series on The Innocence Project. Written by LynAnne Vucovich, a reporter with the Norwalk Reflector, the series will appear today through Tuesday.
NORWALK — The Innocence Project works to exonerate wrongly convicted people. Founded in 1992, it has exonerated 367 people nationally, including 21 Death Row inmates.
The project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment, according to its website.
The Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law began in 2003 and is now one of the top-performing groups of the Innocence Network. Its work has exonerated 28 wrongfully convicted men and women who collectively served over 525 years behind bars, said Mark Godsey, a law professor at the school and its co-founder/director.
“We identify and assist wrongfully convicted people in Ohio,” said Donald Caster, an assistant professor of clinical law at the school and an attorney for the Ohio Innocence Project. “They write into us and we take a look into their case.”
TEST FOR DNA
The group helps defendants it believes are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
“We only deal with factual innocence,” Caster said. “Once we’re sure (they are wrongly convicted), we assign the case to a lawyer and some law students and figure out what happened and how the police investigated (the crime).”
The group uses DNA testing to help prove a case. In some of its casework, crimes occurred before DNA testing was available; in others it might have been available but simply wasn’t used.
The lawyers try to litigate for those defendants who are behind bars and look for any DNA evidence available to test.
“That will tell us if a person is innocent or guilty,” Caster said.
Lawyers and law students working on a case “learn everything we can.” They extensively talk with the defendants and gather public records about the case.
“We talk to the person and find out what they think happened. Sometimes they’re still trying to figure out how they got convicted,” Caster said.
The team also talks with the attorneys who represented wrongfully convicted defendants, search for new evidence that could be tested and seek opinions of forensic scientists.
“Our average length from intake to exoneration is six to seven years; some take longer than that,” Caster said. “It shouldn’t be as hard as it is; we need a corrective mechanism for fixing justice.”
For one of Caster’s cases, he made a motion in July to release all public records concerning fingerprint analysis in connection with the case. To date, the judge hasn’t made a ruling.
“What happens in the courts, the judges get very busy with active cases, and in most post-convicted work they don’t have deadlines and they get put behind,” the attorney said. “(These cases) fall to the bottom of judge’s to-do lists.”
Caster said the lifeblood of the program is the law students who take turns answering calls and “drive the investigations.”
“When we’re successful, we help put families back together. We reconnect families that were wrongly separated,” Caster said. “(Our) policy work is positively impacting the law of Ohio, to make it harder for an innocent person to be convicted in the future.”
Caster said the Innocence Projects help people, one case at a time.
“Hopefully we are bringing real justice to victims,” Caster said. “When the wrong person is convicted, it means that the case isn’t really solved.”
One local case — a wrongful conviction that was overturned in 2017 without assistance from the Innocence Project — involved Patrick Baker Sr.
Baker was falsely accused of participating in a robbery by former Sandusky County sheriff’s deputy Sean O’Connell and spent more than a year in prison. His conviction and sentencing in Sandusky County Judge John Dewey’s courtroom was overturned and he was awarded compensation from the state in 2019 for being a wrongfully imprisoned person.
Baker said O’Connell framed him over a past grudge and manufactured false evidence against him. O’Connell was later convicted of falsifying information in a homicide case and sent to prison for two years in September 2018.
∫ COMING MONDAY: The robber tied up two store employees and got away with $8,000, but David Rawls says police arrested the wrong man.