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Wisconsin Innocence Project marks 10th anniversary

October 13, 2009 By Stacy Forster

When Keith Findley and John Pray founded the Wisconsin Innocence Project, they weren’t sure it would even go anywhere.

It was 1998, at the start of a national movement to expose the mistakes that can result in innocent people being sent to prison.

About 400 inmates write to the Wisconsin Innocence Project each year looking for help.

“We wondered, would we have any clients, will anybody come to us for assistance and will we be able to find any innocent people?” recalls Findley. He and Pray are professors at the UW Law School. “We quickly learned there is no shortage of clients and no shortage of innocent people if you just dig deep enough.”

The Wisconsin Innocence Project will mark its first 10 years with a program and reception at the Law School later this month.

In its first decade of working to free the wrongly convicted, the Wisconsin Innocence Project has freed 12 people and played an important part in shaking up the criminal justice system by highlighting the problem of wrongful convictions. Nationally, 244 people have been exonerated because of DNA evidence.

“The (Wisconsin) Innocence Project exemplifies my idea of what the law can be because it really tests the system and presses us to get it right,” says Peter Middleton, a second-year law student working for the project this year.

Now, one of the project’s biggest challenges is the sheer number of requests it receives from inmates who want their cases reviewed. About 400 inmates write to the project each year looking for help, says Findley.

“I think it’s very important for an attorney to pause to say, ‘Not everyone arrested of a crime is guilty.’ In my daily practice here I never assume my client committed a crime, let alone the crime they’re accused of.”

Art Ettinger, former student in the Wisconsin Innocence Project

The program has become an important training ground for students like Middleton, who are chosen to spend a year poring over case files, trial transcripts and police reports, talking to witnesses and preparing briefs.

Findley says many students report that their work on the project was the most significant learning experience of their law school careers. Students are trained in such practical matters as how to develop relationships with clients and present facts in a case, as well as bigger lessons, such as how to be skeptical and aggressively investigate every possibility.

Former students say the work they did in the Wisconsin Innocence Project is something they use in their legal careers every day.

“I think it’s very important for an attorney to pause to say, ‘Not everyone arrested of a crime is guilty,'” says former student Art Ettinger, now a public defender in Pittsburgh. “In my daily practice here I never assume my client committed a crime, let alone the crime they’re accused of.”

Winn Collins, now district attorney in Wisconsin’s Green Lake County, says what he learned working on the Wisconsin Innocence Project “always comes up.” Because of research he did on problems with eyewitness identification, he said he’s careful about hinging entire cases on it.

“It has some long-lasting implications for me,” Collins says.

After spending eight years as a police officer before starting law school, Cord Buckner was familiar with reading police reports. That background, which gave him a different outlook from many of his classmates, also challenged him.

“I’ve seen police reports, and you read between the lines on how reports are written,” says Buckner, now a detective with the Wausau Police Department. “I didn’t want to be looking at it in a closed mindset. I wanted to open my mind up to all these possibilities and considerations I hadn’t had to consider before.”

Buckner said he uses what he learned through the Wisconsin Innocence Project while building a case.

“You’re looking at it with the eyes of, ‘Let’s do as good a job as possible because you know the challenges that are out there,'” he says. “You want a solid case.”

The project’s first exoneration came in 2001, when Chris Ochoa was released from a Texas prison. He had served 12 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.

Ochoa, who attended and graduated from the Law School in 2006 and worked for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, will receive the Freedom Award at the law school gathering. Ochoa is now a practicing attorney in Madison.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project expects as many as 10 exonerated people will be part of the 10th anniversary celebration.

“Very few people can understand what they’ve been through, but they all can and they can share that with each other,” Findley says.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a program of the Frank J. Remington Center at the Law School.

In addition to work on individual cases, the Wisconsin Innocence Project has been part of other criminal justice reform efforts. The project received a $647,000 federal grant this month to expand the state’s efforts to use DNA evidence to exonerate citizens who have been wrongly convicted.

The 10th anniversary program and reception will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, at the Law School, 975 Bascom Mall, in Godfrey & Kahn Hall.