Pro Bono Help Invaluable to Innocence Project

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By Jordan S. Rubin

“How can you put a value on a family getting a loved one back?”

Marissa Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, posed the rhetorical question when asked about the value of pro bono help from law firms on the project’s cases.

Such assistance is not only “necessary,” but “incalculable,” Bluestine told Bloomberg BNA.

Since the project opened in 2009, it has exonerated seven people and secured new trials or reduced sentences for several others, Bluestine said.

With only four attorneys working for the project, it relies on firms’ resources and dedication to help get justice for its clients, she said.

Review Process: ‘Presumption of Guilt’

The project has a multi-stage review process for taking cases, laid out on its website. Different firms get involved at different stages of review, Bluestine said.

First, the project needs to hear directly from the alleged innocents themselves. It won’t take a referral from, say, a family member. And the potential exoneree needs to claim actual innocence, rather than some other legal argument.

Step two involves an initial review of the case by a volunteer lawyer or student. Some firms get involved at that stage, Bluestine said.

Firms are often involved at stage three, Bluestine said. At that stage, documents are thoroughly reviewed, and a committee of experienced lawyers—at least one of whom is a former prosecutor—decides if the case will move forward to the final stage, Bluestine said.

Stage four is “investigation and possible litigation.” Even if a case makes it that far in the review process, there’s no guarantee the project will take the case.

Notably, the project’s website points out that, because its “interest is in revealing the truth, we start from a presumption of guilt, not innocence, and see where the facts take us.”

“At any point in the process, if the facts confirm an individual’s guilt, we will determine the case will not be pursued,” the site says. “But if the evidence confirms innocence, then we may be able to take on representation of the individual in court,” it says.

Once the project agrees to take a case, pro bono counsel are always involved with the litigation, Bluestine said.

‘Full Partners’

The firms who devote pro bono resources are “full partners” in the project’s cases, Bluestine said.

These aren’t “one-off cases” for the firms, she said. Pro bono attorneys work hundreds and even thousands of hours on these cases, just as they would for paying clients, she said.

Bluestine noted several examples of successful partnerships with firms, including some that have led to full exonerations.

Shaurn Thomas, for example, was freed after serving 24 years for a murder he didn’t commit, according to the project’s website. Thomas’s May 23 release wouldn’t have been possible without the pro bono help of Dechert LLP, Bluestine said.

Dechert attorney James Figorski in Philadelphia—himself a former city cop—worked the case. Figorski’s “extraordinary devotion to finding the truth speaks to his commitment to seeking justice,” Bluestine said.

Jones Day attorneys Jeffrey J. Bresch and Katelyn M Matscherz in Pittsburgh helped the project free another exoneree: Crystal Weimar.

Weimar was released in 2015 after serving 11 years for a murder she didn’t commit, according to the project’s site. She was convicted based on “expert” bite mark testimony, but that same witness later called his own testimony against Weimar “junk science.” The prosecution dropped all the charges in 2016.

The Jones Day lawyers’ work on Weimar’s case was “tremendous,” the project said on its website after the dismissal.

Tyrone Jones is another client who benefited from pro bono help, Bluestine said.

With the volunteer assistance of Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, Jones was released after serving over 40 years for a murder he didn’t commit, according to the project’s website. The project was “lucky to be joined as co-counsel by Cozen O’Connor partner Hayes Hunt and several Cozen associates,” it said.

It’s a privilege to work with the project, Hunt told Bloomberg BNA. It’s a “remarkable organization,” he said.

Hunt’s firm filed an emergency petition on Jones’s behalf in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which said mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment. Jones was 16 when he was convicted of the murder that resulted in his life-without-parole sentence.

The firm filed the petition—which led to Jones’s release on parole—less than a week after Miller was decided.

And though Jones was released on parole rather than exonerated—his conviction remains intact despite his release—the project and Cozen O’Connor are still working to exonerate him, Bluestine said.

In addition, they may seek a pardon from the governor, Hunt said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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