Salt Lake City Tribune

Nonprofit pushes law to compensate those wrongly imprisoned
By Russ Rizzo
The Salt Lake Tribune

Staffers at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center are feeling confident these days.

The nonprofit dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted inmates appears to be gaining ground on a bill that would compensate the exonerated. It has a handful of promising cases. Now, it's also getting a boost from a new University of Utah law school program.

Under the newly created Innocence Clinic, 10 law students are devoting a year to investigating inmate claims of innocence. So far, one man has walked free from a Utah prison thanks to the center. The group's executive director, Katie Monroe, says more may be coming down the pike.

 "We have several cases that we feel are compelling," she said.

The 20 cases they are working include two murders and a rape in Utah and a 1984 murder case in Nevada for which a judge has already ordered DNA testing, Monroe said.

In the meantime, Monroe and center President Jensie Anderson have been working Capitol Hill to push legislation that would compensate exonerated convicts for their time spent behind bars and provide an avenue for an inmate to be declared innocent without DNA evidence.

The Senate measure, called the Exoneration and Assistance Bill, passed the Judiciary Interim Committee unanimously this summer and is on a fast track to be introduced in the upcoming session, Anderson said. The bill, which Anderson calls ''an insurance policy for the state,'' passed the House last year but never made it to a Senate vote.

A big selling point for lawmakers: a chart showing how much money states without similar legislation had to pay to exonerated convicts who then filed lawsuits - amounts ranging from $300,000 to $15 million. The center argues its proposal to provide $40,000 for each year spent behind bars with an extra $30,000 a year for death-row inmates could save the state money.

The center teamed with the Utah Attorney General's Office to promote the bill - a partnership Monroe called nearly unprecedented.
"We were able to bring two seemingly opposing sides to find the middle ground," she said. "I think that's incredible."
One fact that helps: In 77 of the 208 nationwide exonerations based on DNA testing since 1989, the true perpetrator was discovered, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

"If the wrong person's in prison, that means the right person is still out there," Monroe said. "We feel that our work is for the benefit of the whole community."

Creighton Horton, a prosector with the Attorney General's Office, said a University of Utah law professor approached him in 2001 as the innocence center was forming to tell him about the bill. The professor wanted to make sure the attorney general would not oppose the bill, Horton said.

"I told him not only would we not oppose it, we would be glad to spearhead it," Horton said. "We believe that [freeing innocent people] as an important part of a role as prosecutor as convicting the guilty."

The center, based in Salt Lake City, investigates innocence claims in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming using DNA tests or plain, old-fashioned detective work. The center's first big success was the case of Bruce Dallas Goodman, who walked away from prison in 2004 after serving 19 years for the 1984 murder of Sherry Ann Fales Williams, 21, of Salt Lake City.

DNA tests showed Goodman was not the man who raped the woman he was accused of killing.

While prosecutors agreed to free Goodman because of the doubt raised by the DNA evidence, he was never officially declared innocent and would not qualify for assistance under the proposed bill.

The center has won DNA testing in three other cases. In two cases, the DNA matched the inmate claiming innocence, and it matched the crime victim in the other, Anderson said.

About 20 requests from inmates claiming innocence come into the center each month.

"We have quite a backlog," Anderson said.

Life After Exoneration
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