In 1998 law professors Keith Findley and John Pray founded the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Since then, with the help of law students, the project has reviewed thousands of cases and helped free 16 people who were imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
Findley, a former public defender, now serves as president of the Innocence Network, which includes 55 innocence projects in the U.S., and 10 others in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Aside from freeing the innocent, Findley is also working with the state Legislature to improve compensation and services for those freed after spending years, sometimes decades, behind bars. Currently, Wisconsin offers $5,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment with a cap of $25,000. One bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Richard Spanbauer with bipartisan support, would raise that to $15,000 a year with no cap. Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan is preparing another bill that would increase monetary compensation to $50,000 a year, the federal standard, and provide an array of housing, education, workforce development, mental and physical health care and other services.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project is also putting together an advisory board for the state to review cases, work on policy proposals and bring a broader perspective from the criminal justice community. The board will be composed of academics, police officials, defense attorneys and prosecutors, including former Dane County Deputy District Attorney Judy Schwaemle, former Milwaukee District Attorney E. Michael McCann and Madison Police Capt. Vic Wahl.
The following is an edited transcript :
Capital Times: How did you get involved in the Innocence Project?
Keith Findley: I was working at the Law School here in a clinical program that provides legal services to prison inmates and we saw what was happening with DNA. But with the rise of the Innocence Project in New York, we thought that would be just a logical extension of the kinds of services we were already providing to prison inmates as a learning tool for law students.
CT: How much does DNA factor into the cases you take on?
KF: We don’t rely only on DNA, but DNA is what made the whole innocence movement possible, because before that there was sort of a general sense both in the legal community and in the broader community that while mistakes were inevitable occasionally, they were truly aberrant and anomalous and, as such, of little concern. DNA is what shattered that myth of infallibility and made a more systematic inquiry into the possibility of wrongful convictions possible.
CT: You’ve recently been critical of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office for its determination that none of 2,100 homicide convictions it reviewed merited consideration for further DNA screening. Why?
KF: We’ve got a federal grant to look at the same stuff. We sent them 12 cases we initially thought warranted further review and we now know at least seven of those fit the criteria. We’re mystified as to how they concluded that nothing requires any more DNA testing in that county.
CT: What are the most common factors that lead to wrongful convictions?
KF: By far the most frequent factor contributing to wrongful convictions is mistaken eyewitness identification. That’s present in about 76 percent of the DNA exonerations. Then we find things like forensic science errors. Where forensic science analysts testify, 61 percent of the time their testimony is invalid. False confessions are, surprisingly, a prominent feature, present in 16 or 18 percent of the first 250 DNA exonerations. And perjured false jailhouse informant testimony.
CT: How does Wisconsin compare to other states in terms of compensation for those wrongly accused?
KF: It’s the worst compensation statute in the nation. Right now, if you’re guilty of the crime and paroled you get more support than if you’re innocent and set free. So we’re working on a legislative reform that will make the system more responsive in providing timely compensation, and also providing a series of different kinds of support measures to make sure that people who get out after this horrifying experience get out with some sort of support from the community.
CT: How do those who are set free after spending much of their adult lives in prison adapt?
KF: It runs the gamut. Everything from people who are never able to reclaim their lives or generate a new career to people like Chris Achoa, who got out and finished college and went to law school and is practicing law here.
CT: Do most have a hard time landing a job?
KF: All of the information about the crimes is generally available on CCAP (the state’s circuit court records database), so people can look it up. We’ve had clients who got out and applied for a job and were turned down because someone found their criminal record on CCAP. They think that even though the charges were dismissed, you must have done something wrong for them to charge you.
CT: How does it feel to free a person who has been wrongfully convicted?
KF: It’s incredible. It’s got to be the most rewarding experience that a lawyer can have. But at the same time it’s bittersweet, because while justice has been served, it usually comes at considerable cost both to the individual who endures these hardships, and also, if you think about it, it also comes at considerable cost to the community, because when we convict the wrong person it means the real guy’s still out there.
CT: Are there any disappointments?
KF: We have disappointments when we have people we really believe are innocent and we can’t produce the evidence sufficient to overturn their convictions, or even worse, when we do produce the evidence to overturn a conviction and the relief is denied. We also have disappointments when clients’ lives don’t work out well. We’ve had three clients who got out and shortly after their release died. We have others who, although it’s rare, get out and self-destruct.
CT: Which calls to mind Steven Avery, who was convicted of killing Teresa Halbach after winning release from prison after serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. There were those who blamed the Innocence Project for Halbach’s murder because you were instrumental in getting Avery out of prison.
KF: The reality is he was innocent of the (rape) crime. Nobody seriously disputes that. Nobody can predict what somebody’s going to do after that. It was tragic for the Halbach family. It was tragic for everybody involved, and it was gut-wrenching for us. It was just devastating.