By Nathan Wood, J.D. ’16
This post is about decision-making in the context of innocence programs. More specifically, it is about the difficult decision innocence programs must make regarding whether or not to take a case. That decision hinges on whether the incarcerated individual in question has a viable claim of innocence. Of course, that’s a different question from whether the man or woman in prison is actually innocent. They very well may be. But without a way to prove it—or to at least get a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence—the person’s innocence is, in a perverse way, kind of beside the point. How do innocence programs make this decision?
I’ve spent much of the past ten weeks working on a single case, a murder from the 1980s. My first task was to organize three bulging boxes full of trial transcripts, exhibits, news reports, correspondence, appellate motions, and various odds and ends relating to the case. Essentially, my mandate was to bring order to chaos. Once that was complete, I set about determining what material, exactly, we had in our possession, and, conversely, what we were missing and needed. I then spent several weeks trying to track down a long list of documents and items of evidence. Much of it is long gone. But I found some of it, and sometimes in the unlikeliest of places, like town libraries. After gathering and organizing the material, my next task was to analyze it. Toward that end, I created a number of documents—including charts, tables, and timelines—that, over the past couple weeks, I have been working to fill out, slowly and methodically.
Strangely, this mountain of work may end up hurting—not helping—the man who was convicted of the murder. Why? Because it may very well lead my supervisor to conclude that there is no viable claim of innocence and that therefore the case is no longer worth pursuing.
That’s an awful lot of time and effort devoted to the simple question of whether or not to take the case. All told, I’ll have devoted more than 150+ hours to the case by the end of the semester. And that’s not counting similar efforts by other interns who preceded me (the CPCS Innocence Program has been working on the case on-and-off since 2011).
But that’s the nature of innocence work. It is slow and ponderous. Most of one’s time and energy is spent on recreating the record in order to simply get enough information to decide whether or not something is there. It’s tempting to continue investigating cases ad infinitum; you never know what you might find, and the next document you unearth could be the one that proves your client’s innocence. But as with most players in the criminal justice system, innocence programs are strapped for cash and resources, and at a certain point they have to cut their losses and move on to cases with more promise. This is wrenching decision, especially in cases like the one I’ve been working on where the attorneys and client have developed a relationship over the course of years. It must be unimaginably difficult to tell an incarcerated individual that he is out of chances, especially when that means he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.
It would be far nicer to tell him not only that you believe his protestations of innocence, but that you can do something about them. So I’ll keep plodding through the murder case hoping to find enough favorable material to justify continued efforts on our client’s behalf.