Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Wrongly convicted languish here

Wrongly convicted languish here

Pittsburgh and other cities have organizations to free the innocent. Philadelphia does not.

By Robert Moran
Inquirer Staff Writer

Clearing the Record

An article Monday about organizations that work to free the wrongly convicted misspelled the name of Colin Starger, an attorney with the Innocence Project in New York.

Bill Moushey's Innocence Institute in Pittsburgh, with the assistance of college journalism students, works to free people wrongly convicted of crimes, including murder.

He gets hundreds of letters from state inmates from Philadelphia, but he can't help them. He can't afford to reach across Pennsylvania to work on their cases.

That should be the job of the Innocence Institute in Philadelphia. Except that there isn't one - or anything like it.

Moushey raised the issue this month during his keynote address to the Pennsylvania Prison Society at the National Constitution Center. More than 30 of these organizations exist nationwide, he said. So why doesn't Philadelphia have one?

"It doesn't make any sense," said Moushey, an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who founded the Innocence Institute at Point Park University in 2001. The work by the institute - the university pays Moushey as an assistant professor and solicits private donations - often turns into articles published by the newspaper.

"Philadelphia is the one major city in the Northeast that doesn't have a project," said Maddy deLone, executive director of the famed Innocence Project in New York, which pioneered such programs using law students.

There's one in Boston and one in Washington. Two are in New York, including the Innocence Project, which in 1996 helped free a Philadelphia man, Vincent Moto, convicted of rape. He was the first inmate freed in Pennsylvania based on DNA evidence.

This month, Drew Whitley, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1988 Allegheny County murder, was freed after testing determined that his DNA did not match hairs found in the killer's discarded mask and hat. Moushey's Innocence Institute was instrumental in finding the DNA evidence, which police claimed had been lost in a flood.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia does take up occasional old cases if there is an indication that a wrongful conviction can be overturned, said Bradley Bridge, a lawyer for the Public Defender's Office.

He enthusiastically endorsed the creation of a center here to focus on such cases.

"There's absolutely no downside," Bridge said. "And there's no upside in having an innocent person in prison."

Such projects, often initiated by lawyers passionate about the cause, sift through hundreds of requests from inmates for help. They zero in on the cases that appear to be genuine wrongful convictions, and that have some chance - because of untested DNA evidence, for example - of getting proved. The projects provide investigative resources and legal counsel, and press the courts to revisit the cases.

Of 298 people sentenced to death in Illinois, 18 have been exonerated, according to the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, which works to free innocent prisoners.

"I can't believe anything is different between Chicago and Philadelphia," Bridge said of the potential for error in the criminal-justice systems.

Moushey said the sheer volume of convictions in Philadelphia made the city a prime candidate.

Larry Frankel, legislative director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that those convictions were overseen by District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who relishes her reputation as a tough prosecutor - and has been criticized for being overzealous.

"Think if you tried to start one," Frankel said. "Lynne Abraham would go on the warpath."

Abraham did not respond to a request for comment.

Innocence groups have been established at law schools and, in Moushey's case, a journalism program - and the Philadelphia region has plenty of both.

Moushey, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, said that he had contacted Temple University's journalism department, but that nothing had come of it. DeLone, the executive director of the Innocence Project, said that some Temple law students had expressed interest, but that the effort had stalled. The University of Pennsylvania's law school considered a program in the late 1990s, deLone said, but that went nowhere.

Moushey tried to get the Innocence Project to open a Philadelphia office. The project, supported by foundation grants and private donations, has a lawyer, Colin Starger, who works on Pennsylvania cases, but it operates only from its New York office.

Stager said a Philadelphia program would allow people to "step back and take a bigger view" of the criminal-justice system.

He said that Philadelphia's system "is groaning under the volume" of prosecutions, and that lawyers who might be interested in such an effort were simply besieged by daily responsibilities.

But if somebody or some institution stepped forward, it would be worth it for them, proponents say.

"There's nothing like freeing a person wrongfully convicted," deLone said.

Frankel pointed to a public safety benefit, citing a case in which a DNA test cleared a man and led to the perpetrator's identification through a DNA database.

According to the Innocence Project, 177 people have been freed from prisons across the country through DNA evidence, which is the project's sole focus.

While most programs use law students, Moushey works with journalism students, and he described the difference: "We're like the private investigator in a criminal proceeding who gathers information and gives it to the lawyers, who then litigate the case. We are only interested in knowing what happened."

He also applies a strict standard when reviewing potential cases: "Guilty until proven innocent."

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.

More Information

The Innocence Institute's Web site is www.pointpark.edu/innocence.

The Center for Wrongful Convictions' Web site is www.law.northwestern.edu/wrongfulconvictions.

The Innocence Project's Web site is www.innocenceproject.org.

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