National Innocent Prisoners Project (NIPP)

Nipping at the Heels of Justice. "Justice is not only about convicting the guilty."

The time has come to address the problem of wrongfully convicted innocent citizens as a national problem as opposed to a local problem.  There are numerous local Innocent Projects located in each State in this nation, either of an independent nature, or at local law schools.  Yet there is no national focal point where these numerous organizations can report the numbers of inquiries received, cases pending, cases prevailed upon or backlog of cases pending and awaiting assistance.

Cases where local State authorities quietly grant a parole or pardon to prisoners presenting proof of innocence seldom receive more than one paragraph on page 10 of some local newspaper, if that.  Cases where new trials are granted, and the results of those trials, are seldom reported as an actual case of an exoneration of a wrongfully convicted citizen.

We are making a serious mistake in focusing only on those prisoners who are released from Death Row due to proof of innocence.  Death Row prisoners receive the most comprehensive protection of their rights of all prisoners.  The numbers of Death Row prisoners proven innocent and released are merely a warning sign of the numbers of non-Death Row innocent prisoners in this nation.  The innocent Death Row prisoners are just the tip of the iceberg.

I advocate the formation of a National Innocent Prisoners Project to serve as a clearinghouse and reporting center for all the individual Innocent Projects and law schools in the United States.  The mission of the Project would be to gather statistics and information from Innocent Projects and trial attorneys nationwide to identify and report upon the actual scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States, and to provide those statistics to Congress, State Legislatures, the news media and the public.

At the present time the problem of wrongful convictions is addressed by a highly segmented group of loosely affiliated lawyers and concerned citizens at the local and State level who generally read about each others successes in newspapers, or on the occasion where the release gathers national media attention on programs such as 48 Hours, 20/20, Primetime or 60 Minutes.  Yet no actual statistics have ever been gathered nationwide and placed into a comprehensive presentation.  Without those statistics, the actual scope of the problem needing addressed by the Justice System and the National Government remains hidden.  Needless to say, local prosecutors and judges do not go out of their way to call a press conference to announce they made a mistake and sent an innocent citizen to prison.

Governor Ryan's commutation of the sentences of all Death Row prisoners in the State of Illinois, as controversial as it may be, should raise a red flag for every citizen, not just persons who are the pro-Death Penalty segment of society.  The prisoners whose sentences he commuted had two trial attorneys, and attorneys and investigators appointed at every stage of their appellate process.  Plus Death Penalty cases receive a heightened scrutiny in the courts at all levels of review.  This includes collateral review of their cases, or post-appeals and post-conviction actions in both State and Federal courts.

Non-Death Penalty cases receive one attorney at trial and one attorney on their first appeal as of right.  After that the prisoner is left to his or her own resources assisted by jailhouse lawyers, if they can find one who does not already have too many cases pending for other prisoners.

While the focus is on Death Penalty cases, it should be remembered that many of the prisoners in this nation are serving either life sentences, or sentences which are so long they will also die in prison, just not as quickly as those sentenced to death.

I am personally sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.  The first time I even have the possibility of being released is in May of the year 2036.  I have overwhelming proof of my innocence (you can see that proof here).  Yet no laws exist in either Ohio, or the United States which provide for a place or person to which I can present my evidence and have it heard and ruled upon as a matter of right.  Ohio Clemency and Pardon statutes specifically state that a claim a prisoner is innocent is not a claim that can be heard by Ohio's Governor upon application for pardon, clemency or commutation of sentence.  Ohio Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 limits Motions for New Trial to being filed within 120 days of the conviction.  The evidence proving I am innocent could not be found for three years after my conviction.  When I tried to send my evidence to a federal court, the court refused to accept it, stating that Justice Rehnquist had ruled proof of innocence by a prisoner convicted in a State court was a matter for the State to correct and PROOF OF INNOCENCE submitted by a State prisoner was IRRELEVANT in federal court.

I have no where to go to present my proof that I am innocent.  That's wrong.

In may of 2036 I will turn 85 years old.  I see men in here now painfully using their walkers to walk to the chow hall each day.  I don't want to live, and die, like that.  If I cannot change the laws of this nation to recognize a fundamental right to liberty, or a constitutional right to liberty, and to establish laws allowing prisoners with proof of their innocence the right to present that evidence to some court of law, commission or panel, and obtain relief from wrongful convictions, I will die alone some night in this prison cell with proof I am innocent sitting in my locker box under my bed.

The only way I know to change the laws to recognize the right of a prisoner to prove innocence after conviction and the completion of appeals is to make the public aware of the extent of the problem.  The only way I know to do that is to attempt to show the need for a National Innocent Prisoners Project where the information on the numbers of innocent prisoners can be collected, correlated, compiled and rendered into hard empirical data.

Five percent of the Death Row prisoners in Illinois were released after DNA evidence proved them to be innocent.  All of those prisoners had a trial and all of their appeals in both Federal and State courts had been held and denied.  This is what bothered Governor Ryan.  The system had failed to correct wrongful convictions despite the full protections and heightened scrutiny given to these cases in appeal after appeal.

The system of justice in this nation cannot be 100% efficient.  The numbers of prisoners released from Death Row based on DNA evidence indicates that at least 5% of all prisoners may well be innocent citizens who have been wrongfully convicted.  I say "at least," because non-Death Penalty prisoners do not receive the same intense review of their cases as Death Penalty prisoners receive, so the error rate may well be much higher.

In order to know if the problem of wrongful convictions is as prevalent or greater among non-Death Penalty prisoners as it is among Death Penalty prisoners, a National Innocent Prisoners Project must be formed where all the one, two, three, four or five attorney local Innocent Projects can report their cases, backlogs and exonerations won for entry into a National Database.  If the problem indicated by Death Row exonerations proves to be a national problem extending to all convictions, then it should be addressed as a national problem and the entire justice system reformed to provide for the possibility of wrongful convictions, and a method of review of proof of innocence presented by prisoners created as a matter of right.

If the percentages of the rate of error in Death Row cases is any indication of the extent of the problem we, as a nation, face, at least 5% of the total prison population of 2,000,000 prisoners incarcerated in the jails and prisons of this nation at this very moment are innocent.

That means, right now, right at this very moment as you read the end of this article, at least 100,000 of your fellow countrymen and women are imprisoned by some local, State, or Federal agency wrongfully, without recourse at law.  If the government can do that to any one single innocent person, it can do it to you and your children.

A national Innocent Prisoners Project would bring the problem to the front page of the newspaper, instead of the one paragraph at page ten it now receives.  It would force the government to enact laws to protect the wrongfully convicted.

Ask yourself a question.  Governor Ryan was a Pharmacist before he became Governor of Illinois.  If he had been a former prosecutor who had prosecuted many of the cases he reviewed, and placed many of the prisoners on Death Row in Illinois, would he, could he, have made the same decision he did?

Most of your Governors, State Representatives, Congressional Representatives, Senators, and State Attorney Generals are all former prosecutors.  Can they politically afford to enact laws that may allow prisoners they prosecuted, and they fought against on appeal, prove themselves innocent, without a public outcry they cannot politically afford to ignore?

This is a problem the people must take into their own hands because our elected representatives have a vested interest in sweeping the problem under the carpet and meeting it with silence instead of open debate.  After all, what politician could publicity state that an innocent prisoner should not be allowed to prove their innocence and regain their freedom?  Yet this is exactly what they are saying by refusing to address the problem as more than a theoretical discussion.

The only way the government can address the problem of wrongful convictions and maintain the status quo is by not addressing the problem at all.  This is what they are doing, this is what they have been doing, and this is what they will continue to do, until we the people box them in a corner and make them answer the most important question of our time in relation to our system of justice.

"Why are so many wrongful convictions not being corrected during the appeal process provided for criminal convictions?"

And maybe more importantly, "How many more wrongful convictions are there that we do not yet know about?"

Let's find out.  Let's create a National Innocent Prisoner Project and gather the statistics from all the independent Innocence Projects nationwide.

Let's see what the statistics show.  Let's see how many prisoners are granted a parole to silence them, or given a new trial that is never held because the charges are dismissed in light of the new evidence.  Let's see how many DNA exonerations never made national headlines.  Let's see how serious of a problem we face.  Let's see how many prisoners have proof they are innocent, and no place to present that evidence for it to be heard, or how many are sitting on the waiting lists of the Innocence Projects across the nation, waiting just for someone to review their evidence.  And if the numbers are as Death Row exonerations in Illinois indicate they are, let's hand the statistics to Congress and the State Legislatures and ask them to create laws for the innocent in prison.

In these days of victims rights, they are the greatest victims of them all.

Until next time this is Jim Love reporting from The Front Line.

E-Mail Jim

©2003-2004 James Love. All Rights Reserved.
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