Experts say people who are wrongfully convicted are uniformly poor and disproportionately a minority. One recent study by the Innocence Project in New York, the nation’s first program founded in 1992, showed at least 156 of 216 people exonerated through DNA testing were African-American, Latino or Asian American.
Many of the cases also fall apart when scrutinized for unreliable or limited science, faulty eyewitness accounts, false confessions, poor defense work and unreliable testimony from informants, experts say.
The nonprofit Innocence Project of Iowa began last year out of a discussion among lawyers at Drake University who wanted to start their own program. Years ago, the University of Iowa’s law school provided legal assistance to Iowa prison inmates, but it never had a program focused exclusively on exonerating people believed to be wrongfully convicted.
Brian Farrell, a Cedar Rapids attorney who specializes in appeals and post-conviction cases, said the group could not find a home or funding at the state’s two big law schools at the U of I or Drake, but both schools nonetheless liked the idea of getting students involved.
Mark Gruwell, program coordinator for the paralegal-legal studies program at Iowa Lakes Community College, said about a dozen of his students have been reviewing correspondence from inmates, which the organization has been soliciting since last fall.
Those students submit analyses and reports, which are forwarded to a committee in Des Moines. That committee decides whether to reject a case or look into it more. From there, law and journalism students at the U of I will assist pro-bono defense lawyers with cases worth pursuing.
The project has identified two cases to pursue thus far.
Drake law students also are expected to get involved in the future.
Farrell said the project’s only financial support is from the Iowa Public Defender’s Association, but it hopes to develop other sources of funding.
The article mentions David Flores, but it’s not clear whether that case is one of the two that the Innocence Project will be focusing on. Flores has served 12 years in prison for first-degree murder. He will have a hearing next month to determine whether his sentence can be vacated. Des Moines police withheld evidence naming a different suspect in that murder case from Flores’ attorneys.