Wednesday, October 3, 2007
The Mississippi Innocence Project is looking to put down permanent roots in Mississippi and is kicking off its effort through an Oct. 22 fund raiser. Award-winning novelists John Grisham and Scott Turow are hosting the event at the Hilton Hotel in Jackson.
The national non-profit dedicates good lawyers to overturning miscarriages of justice, like the 1994 conviction of Jackson resident Cedric Willis. Former Jackson Free Press Managing Editor Brian Johnson covered Willis' case in his award-winning 2006 report, "Deepest Midnight: Cedric Willis and The Failure of Mississippi Justice."
Hinds County Circuit Court convicted Willis in 1994 for the shooting death of Carl White, despite DNA evidence excluding him as the perpetrator. Then-Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters and Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Breland Hilburn worked to exclude the DNA evidence from the trial, handing Willis a life sentence plus 90 years, resulting in nine wasted years in Parchman, while the real murderer—allegedly the same person engaged in a shooting and robbing spree in 1994—remains unidentified to this day.
The perpetrator had raped one of his victims in 1994, but DNA results from the rape excluded Willis as the rapist. Peters successfully pushed to have the evidence excluded, with Hilburn's blessing, although victim accounts identified the rapist and robber as the same person.
The Innocence Project has offices throughout the country, all independently initiated and operated. All receive thousands of letters a year from the nation's incarcerated, begging for help in a re-trial. The organization considered Willis' case file, recognized its flaws and arranged for a re-trial. Judge Tomie Green found Willis innocent after the inclusion of the DNA evidence in 2006.
"What would I say to (Hilburn) or Peterson if I saw them on the street today? I don't even know," Willis said. "I've lost so much during that time. I just wouldn't know how to respond anymore."
"After my time in prison, I know that the system can convict an innocent person. I have no doubt about that," Willis said. "I remember in jail, almost everybody said they were innocent, but there were some people there with me who I believed were telling the truth. It can happen. It happened with me."
The Innocence Project has managed to exonerate 200 wrongful convictions in the last 15 years, and the project announced last week that it is intent on focusing more determinedly on Mississippi.
The organization set up shop in the offices of the University of Mississippi School of Law, and Grisham and Columbus attorney Wilbur Colom provided the initial funding. However, the organization still needs staff. Tucker Carrington is director of the New Mississippi Innocence Project in Oxford—and, right now, he's basically it.
"What we're trying to do is build up the office," Carrington said. "We need staff attorneys, we need some investigators, and we need some office personnel. We have seed money, but the question is how much can we bring in with this fund raiser and how much can we bring in over the next year, so we can make sensible decisions about who we hire. There's no shortage of work here."
Emily Maw is director of the Innocence Project in New Orleans. Maw's office took up Willis' case after the national office in New York received his request letter from the bowels of Parchman.
"Our office in New Orleans gets bombarded with letters, hundreds of letters, many from Mississippi, many like Cedric's. There is an incredible need for this service all over the country, and in Mississippi in particular," Maw said.
Carrington agreed that Mississippi has its share of problems in its justice system.
In addition to overturning court mistakes, the projects seeks to "identify systemic problems in the state's judicial system and develop initiatives designed to raise public and political awareness of the … causes and societal costs of wrongful convictions," according to a project press release.
"Today we could staff this office with three staff attorneys and twice that in investigators, and we would have absolutely no shortage of work," Carrington said.
The project, however short-staffed, is already working on investigating other potential cases. A press release form the organization predicts the project will become "an integral part of the school's course offerings" by January 2008. The project will routinely hijack law and journalism students from around the state to participate in case investigations.
For more information about the upcoming fund raiser, call Tucker Carrington at 662-915-5207 or e-mail [e-mail missing].
Not to slight Grisham any, but he doesn't even live here anymore. Last I heard he'd moved to Virginia.