Project helps the wrongfully accused

By Colin Walsh

The fairly recent advances in DNA-related forensic science have benefitted criminal investigations for decades; in some instances, those advances have also worked to free wrongfully incarcerated criminals.

However, all the scientific breakthroughs in the world can’t seem to halt the prevalence wrongful incarceration. For those with legitimate claims of innocence, organizations like The Kentucky Innocence Project are there to help.

The Kentucky Innocence Project is a member of an international organization known simply as The Innocence Project. The goal sounds short and simple: exonerate the wrongfully convicted. But the problems that put these potentially innocent citizens there in the first place are numerous, complex and troubling.

Eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions, “bad lawyering” and government misconduct are just some of the causes that the Innocence project cites for the epidemic of wrongful conviction.

Hundreds of convicts have been freed with the help of Innocence Project branches. Kentucky’s branch was founded in 2001, and since then they have managed to help get 10 wrongfully convicted citizens out from behind prison bars. That’s roughly one per year, right on par with the Innocence projects national average. No success story, however, is as compelling as Michael VonAllmen’s, whose 1982 conviction was vacated June 4, 2010.

VonAllmen served 11 years after he was wrongfully convicted of rape, sodomy and robbery charges. After receiving parole in 1994, the Innocence Project uncovered new evidence that eventually exonerated VonAllmen beyond any reasonable doubt and the court vacated his conviction. Since he has been declared innocent, VonAllmen has been speaking out about his plight and the many others that still share it.

He will be speaking at the University of Kentucky today at 10 a.m. in the College of Law Courtroom, room 102, telling students about his plight and what can be done.

Supervising Attorney, Linda Smith, says that student involvement is an “enormous” aspect of the Project, and that it literally wouldn’t exist without it.

“(The Project) originally started with law students and journalism students and criminal justice students investigating these cases and looking at things our criminal justice system overlooked. It started with the desire to look at the failings in the system and ultimately change them.” Smith says student involvement plays a large role in the project .

“Students are still a huge part of what we do, we have some federal funding to hire professionals but students are an enormous part of what we do. Without them we couldn’t investigate half the cases we investigate.”

“Half the cases” amounts to about 350 – not such a “light load” according to Smith, which is why she considers student involvement as not only crucial to the project but extremely beneficial to the students because of increased responsibility.

“This is one of the few places you can get actual hands-on learning with clients and begin making a difference in people’s lives,” Smith said. “It’s a great place to get your start (in criminal law).”

Using Kentucky’s Public Defender Agency the project teams up with Commonwealth law schools. Northern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville all offer the Kentucky Innocence Project Externship to law students.

Smith says that the plan for the future is to “make Kentucky a flagship state for criminal justice reform.”