Salt Lake City Tribune

Fighting wrongful verdicts a passion
New to Utah: Lawyer brings professional, personal experience to the Innocence Center
By Elizabeth Neff
The Salt Lake Tribune

Since her days as a law school student, Katie Monroe has had a passion for criminal cases with more questions than answers.

When she began screening cases for the Virginia Court of Appeals, convictions with scant evidence or questionable circumstances concerned her.

"I was able to convince some judges to take a second look at things," she said. "In the legal field, this is where my passion lies."

In 1992, her professional interests and personal life collided when the death of her mother's longtime companion landed Beverly Monroe in prison for a murder she claimed she didn't commit. Katie Monroe's work led an appellate court to overturn her mother's conviction in 2002.

This week, Monroe began a new chapter in her career as the first executive director of the Utah-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), a privately funded organization that investigates claims of innocence in Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming.
Katie Monroe
Katie Monroe puts files away in her new Salt Lake City office. She is the first executive director of the Utah-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), a privately funded organization that investigates claims of innocence. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Jensie Anderson, RMIC president and a University of Utah law professor, said Monroe's hiring marks a turning point for the group. In the past, a part-time staff attorney handled most of the cases, with a few outside attorneys assisting.

The group now hopes to increase its work in Nevada and Wyoming, from where it has drawn fewer cases than Utah.

Monroe comes to Utah from The Constitution Project, a Washington, D.C., organization that unites bipartisan committees to find common ground on charged issues, such as the death penalty.

Monroe recently finished working on the Project's judicial independence initiative. She said she enjoyed the work of building consensus and wants to contribute at the innocence center in a similar way.

"One of the most important things is to realize that law enforcement, victims and criminal defendants all have the same goal in mind: to make sure that we get the right person," she said.
Monroe said she hopes to work closely with others in the justice system.

"I really want to nurture relationships with police and prosecutors because that's where the future of this lies," she said. "Our mission is to help people in prison establish their innocence, but part and parcel of that is education about how wrongful convictions occur and what can be done to prevent them."

The experience of her mother going to prison has given Monroe a taste of the harsh realities of the justice system.

"It takes very little time to rush to judgment," she said. "But to free someone wrongfully convicted takes a lot of time."

Her siblings could not fathom that Beverly Monroe could be convicted of murder after the death of Roger de la Burde, found on a couch with a fatal gunshot wound to the head from his own handgun. But Monroe worried.

As an attorney, she knew there was a chance their mother could be convicted. Regardless, "Nobody wants to believe innocent people go to prison."

In overturning Beverly Monroe's conviction a decade later, a federal court would call the case a "monument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling."

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a former colleague, said Monroe is a rare find for the RMIC.

"She brings to it not only a lawyer's ability to analyze, but also her personal experience, which is something I don't think any other innocence project has," said Armbrust. "It's rare to find someone who has the instincts she does - who is smart and passionate and who is also the nicest, most down-to-earth person you will meet."

The RMIC receives between 15 and 20 requests for help each week from convicts and their families, according to Anderson.

To date, the group has succeeded in getting post-conviction DNA testing done in four cases in Utah. One resulted in the release of Bruce Dallas Goodman, who served 19 years in prison for the murder of Sherry Ann Fales Williams, 21, of Salt Lake City, in November 1984.

Monroe said she hopes one day the justice system can ensure her job won't be necessary.
"Put us out of business," she said, "please."

Katie Monroe, 41

Originally from Virginia, moved to Utah from Washington, D.C.

Education: George Mason University School of Law; Randolph-Macon College

Career: Clerked for the U.S. Attorney's office and the Virginia Court of Appeals; attorney advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; founder and director of the Beverly Monroe Committee for Justice; initiative director at The Constitution Project
Family: Married with a son

Innocence Projects
Truth in Justice