On October 29, 2015, attorneys in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh office sat with Marissa Boyers Bluestine, Esq. of the PA Innocence Project to learn how to help those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and are factually innocent. Marissa, a former Duane Morris litigation associate, has served as the Legal Director of the Project since it began in 2009. She coordinates and supervises the legal efforts of the organization as well as promotes the mission to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania through public education and advocacy. The PA Innocence Project is the only organization in the state of Pennsylvania to help those who are factually innocent and have been wrongly convicted.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s mission is to free those convicted of crimes they did not commit and prevent the innocent from being convicted. They limit their cases to only those where the inmate is factually innocent of the crime. Factual innocence does not include self-defense, consent, ineffectiveness assistance of counsel or constitutional violation cases. Nationwide, 333 inmates have been exonerated through DNA and there have been about 1,690 exonerations (DNA and non-DNA) since 1989.
Every year, 9,969 people in the United States can be wrongly convicted of serious crimes. 80% of wrongful sexual assault convictions are because of witness misidentification. 51% of all wrongful convictions include perjury or false informant information, meaning people in prison will say that another prisoner confessed to them in order to get a lesser sentence. 42% of wrongful convictions involve police, prosecutor or judge errors and 25% of innocent people convicted of homicide falsely confessed. Finally, 24% of all exonerations involve faulty or falsified forensic evidence.
At the PA Innocence Project, there are four stages in determining whether or not to take a case. In the first stage, staff members review letters from prisoners and look at three questions: 1) Is there a claim of factual innocence? 2) Was the conviction in Pennsylvania? 3) Is the inmate past the direct appeal stage? After answering these questions are answered, the case goes to stage two and three; this is where pro bono help from attorneys is needed. In stage two, a 12-page questionnaire is sent to the inmate asking for information on his case. This question and other appellate documents will be reviewed and determine whether or not the Project will continue to investigate the claim. Also in this stage is inquiry where questions like whether the client has a credible alibi, was the evidence at trial known to be behind wrongful convictions, and whether the inmate’s theory of innocence make sense are answered. If the answers to these questions are no, the case is closed. If yes, the case moves on to stage three. In this stage, long term volunteers are needed to help put together a sustainable narrative for the case. This stage answers questions like what happened at the incident, how did the inmate get involved, how did the investigation by police progress, how did the inmate arrested get prosecuted and more. Finally, in stage four, the Board of Directors, which includes former DA’s and US Attorneys, reviews the cases from stage three and decides which cases to take for investigation and potential litigation.
For more information about the PA Innocence Project, or to get involved, please contact Katharyn Christian McGee or KC Obenschain. Help those who are factually innocent have the chance to start a new life!