Thursday, September 18, 2003

Ohio's Innocence Project takes first cases

Inmate denies driving in fatality

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Law students Mary Macpherson (left), LaRhonda Carson and Ian Lin are investigating a case for the Ohio Innocence Project.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
A broken windshield, a tuft of hair and a patch of blood could help a group of Cincinnati law students set a convicted killer free.

Chris Bennett, who said he lost his memory in a car accident that killed another man, said he's getting his memory back in prison. And he maintains he wasn't the drunken driver who killed Ronald Young in a 2001 one-car accident. He was a passenger, he says.

And that's exactly what the Paris, Ohio, man hopes 18 University of Cincinnati law school students are going to prove.

Bennett's is the first case for the Ohio Innocence Project, launched at the University of Cincinnati's College of Law in May.

The Ohio project re-examines old evidence using new technology. The program is one of several dozen in the nation, including one at University of Kentucky law school in Lexington and the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. All are modeled after the original Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.

"The Innocence Project is necessary in Ohio," said William R. Gallagher, a Cincinnati defense attorney and the project's legal adviser. "It's clear that every state has had some population of innocent inmates not released in the normal process.

"Without the free help of law students, their cases would probably go unreviewed," he said.

Founded in 1992 by civil rights and constitutional attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the New York program uses post-conviction DNA testing to exonerate the innocent. In the last decade, 136 prison inmates, including four from Ohio, were freed through the work of law students working in Innocence Projects.

Ohio's Innocence Project will work in very much the same way.

In its first foray, the students will re-examine files and evidence in the cases of four convicted rapists and two convicted killers, including Bennett and a person convicted in a slaying in Southwest Ohio. Project advisers would not disclose details in those cases, including names.

The cases were honed from more than 200 applications.

Tough review rules

The criteria for a full investigation is steep: A prisoner must have significant time left to serve; there must be new evidence that sheds light on possible innocence - such as new DNA testing or new technology that can extract additional ijformation from that evidence; or a witness must recant.

Bennett's case sounded promising, said Mary Macpherson, 41, one of three law students in the group re-examining his case.

Bennett was convicted Feb. 7 in the accident that killed Young, 42, in Lawrence Township, in northeast Ohio. Young was a passenger in the car with Bennett.

Bennett pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide in exchange for a nine-year sentence.

Then, he says, his memory came back.

"When we first read his letter, we thought: 'Oh yeah, right, his memory is coming back,'" Macpherson said. "But he had drawn a few things, explained the windshield and steering wheel."

The group tracked down the van at a junkyard last week and took blood and hair samples that will be submitted to a forensic laboratory. The students say DNA testing might place Bennett in the passenger's seat.

Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero is willing to listen, but believes Bennett is responsible.

"Judging from cases throughout the country where people have been found innocent, this could be a good project," Ferrero said. "But I'm not sure this is a good case."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he, too, would work with students if they came across a case in Hamilton County, but believes the students could serve the justice system in other ways.

"Sometimes I wish law professors would expend as much time helping prosecutors as they do helping criminal defendants," he said.

Mark Godsey, the project's faculty adviser, knows there are detractors, but explained the students don't assume innocence.

"Justice should demand that we make that minimal effort before we let someone rot away in jail or be executed," he said. "Either way when the DNA tests come out, we've done a public service.

"If the test tells us the prisoner is guilty, we've demonstrated to the public that a prisoner's claims that he is innocent and the system wronged him are untrue, and the students have learned a lot in the process. If the DNA tests tell us the prisoner is innocent, we've secured an innocent man's freedom, or maybe even his life. It's a win-win situation."

Ohioans freed

Four Ohio prisoners have been freed for crimes they did not commit with help from law students working with the New York-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic based out of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

They are:

 Danny Brown: Convicted in Lucas County in 1982 on charges of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary. Sentenced to life in prison. Exonerated in 2001 after serving 19 years.

 Anthony Michael Green: Convicted in Cuyahoga County in 1988 on charges of rape and aggravated robbery. Sentenced to 20 to 50 years in prison. Exonerated in 2001 after serving 13 years.

 Walter Smith: Convicted in Franklin County in 1986 on charges of rape, kidnapping and robbery. Sentenced to 78 to 190 years in prison. Exonerated in 1996 after serving five years.

 Brian Piszczek: Convicted in Cuyahoga County in 1991 on charges of rape, felonious assault and burglary. Sentenced to 15 to 25 years in prison. Exonerated in 1994 after serving four years.


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