Pasman: Oregon Innocence Project aims to correct a faulty prison system

In the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” when Andy Dufresne is asked why he is in prison, he responds by saying “My lawyer fucked me. Everyone’s innocent in here. Didn’t you know that?” Although it seems to be a running joke among inmates to claim their innocence, are there really people in prison who are truly innocent of the crimes that they have been convicted of?

According to The National Registry of Exonerations, there have been just over 2,000 exonerations— the release of an inmate and the reversal of their conviction— in the U.S. since 1989. It’s impossible to ever know precisely how many, but there are certainly countless prisoners who are behind bars right now for crimes they didn’t commit. Some estimates have been made, such as the study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reported an estimated 1 in 25 inmates who were given the death penalty were later proven innocent.

Many exonerations have gained national media attention, such as the “Central Park 5,” a group of juveniles who were wrongfully identified as the perpetrators of an assault and rape in Central Park. In another case, Brian Banks, a promising high school football star who had committed to play for USC, was falsely accused of rape by a fellow high school classmate.

Numerous projects around the country, such as the Oregon Innocence Project, which started in Portland in 2014, are working hard to help wrongfully convicted prisoners out of jail. 

Janis Puracal, an appellate attorney and member of the Oregon Innocence Project, got involved in innocence work after her brother, Jason, was wrongfully convicted and spent two years imprisoned in brutal conditions in a maximum security prison in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan prison didn’t have enough food to go around, and there was no running water or electricity. Jason was cooped up in a 12×15 foot cell (picture your dorm room) with 11 other inmates during the time he served. After a grueling two years, and an incredible effort by Janis, Jason was eventually freed and able to come home. Although this was an extreme case of being imprisoned in inhumane conditions in a foreign country, wrongfully convicted prisoners in the U.S. go through their share of suffering as well.

So how are wrongful convictions able to happen in our justice system? Mistaken eyewitness identification is one major contributor to the problem. Despite the trust we have in our memory, it may not be the most reliable metric to use for testifications in criminal cases. Researchers have demonstrated “all of the ways our memories can fail us and all of the ways our memories can be contaminated by outside influences to create memories that never actually happened,” explains Janis. It’s possible that pressures to imprison more people from privately owned prisons, false confessions and junk science may be contributing factors as well.

Wrongful convictions result in horrible psychological and physical consequences for those convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

Wrongful convictions result in horrible psychological and physical consequences for those convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. It’s bad enough to be spending your life behind bars for a crime that you really did commit, but imagine being in jail surrounded by hardened criminals as punishment for something you didn’t even do, with no one believing in you. You are mostly forgotten by society and enter into the prison-industrial-complex which, let’s be honest, probably creates better criminals instead of reforming them. Prisoners are forced to find ways to survive in violent, corrupt conditions (that don’t resemble normal society whatsoever). Exonerated people often have difficulty transitioning back to society once released. Many states don’t even compensate exonerees for the time they served unjustly behind bars.

Although there have been rare cases of wrongfully convicted inmates who worked on their own case in jail to find evidence that resulted in an exoneration, those who are wrongfully convicted usually need help from family members or innocence projects to help get them out of jail.

“Once you’re in prison you’re pretty much cut off from the resources of the outside world,” said Carrie Leonetti, an associate professor and the leader of the Criminal Justice Initiative at the UO School of Law in Portland.

It took an unrelenting effort from Janis to get her brother freed from the Nicaraguan prison. She assembled a large team of attorneys, lobbyists and PR people in order to get Jason home. This is why organizations like the Oregon Innocence Project are crucial to help assemble the resources needed in order to overturn a wrongful conviction. There have been 16 exonerations in Oregon so far, and while the newly formed Oregon Innocence Project has yet to have their first exoneration, they currently have five exoneration cases in litigation.

Luckily, there is hope for people who have been imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. The introduction of DNA evidence in the 1980s was able to prove the innocence of many inmates. Longtime prisoners and even some on death row were able to use DNA evidence to revisit their cases and show that they didn’t commit the crime they were accused of.

Not everyone behind bars is a criminal. It’s not an easy process, but people who are wrongfully convicted do have the chance for freedom again. Innocence projects are working hard across the country to supply the vast amount of resources to wrongfully convicted inmates needed to result in an exoneration.

The Oregon Innocence Project is hosting their annual “THIS IS INNOCENCE” event on May 11 in Portland. There will be former wrongfully convicted prisoners who will share their story and all proceeds will go to help fund efforts to help exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates.

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Toby Pasman

Toby Pasman