Quarterly Update - September

Clinic Update

2019 has been a very busy year for the Oklahoma Innocence Project.  Legal Administrator, Cheryl Burns just finished her first year of work with the Project. If you have not been in the Project for a while, I invite you to come in. Cheryl has spent the last year organizing and rearranging the office space to accommodate our students and numerous volunteers. She has also created more office space, as we have added a full-time Legal Director to the Project.

Andrea Miller, who has been the Project’s clinical professor for the past three years, joined OKIP full time in July as our Legal Director. Andrea had an impressive career with the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office and upon her retirement from the Public Defender’s office agreed to join OKIP. We are so happy to have her years of experience and analytical ability in reviewing cases for the Project’s clients.

We are also very excited to announce that an Advisory Board for OKIP has been formed. Bonnie and Cullen Thomas, Valerie Couch, John Hudson and Brent Stockwell have agreed to serve on OKIP’s Advisory Board. Their role will be to advise OKIP on fundraising and policy. The Advisory Board had its first meeting on August 2, 2019, where we discussed our caseload and resource needs. We are grateful to our Board members for their willingness to serve on the Board and look forward to their leadership and direction.  

In August, the NY Innocence Project reached out to our Executive Director, Vicki Behenna to testify on September 10, 2019, at the Congressional House Science Committee hearing on progress in forensic science 10 years after the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward." The committee is interested in learning about progress made and considering work that still needs to be done. This is quite an honor to be asked among all other Innocence Projects across the country.      

Ginnie Graham: Oklahoma protecting against false confessions and eyewitness misidentification

In 1987, about four months after a brutal rape and kidnapping, the 20-year-old Tulsa victim asked to hear men in a police lineup speak because, she said, she would never forget the voice of her attacker. She was denied.

Arvin Carsell McGee Jr. was in the mix because some police officers thought he resembled a sketch. He had been on a deferred sentence agreement for possessing a stolen credit card and vehicle.

The victim positively identified him, and McGee would face three trials, the first two ending in a mistrial with single jurors holding out.

With each trial, the victim became more convincing in her testimony, and McGee became more adamant in his denials. The only science was from blood testing that matched 19% of the black male population, and his alibi was his girlfriend.

It’s difficult to not believe a victim swearing with full, emotional detail that a specific person committed such an intimately violent act. It makes sense a person being violated would have an ironclad memory.

OK-CADP fundraiser features Innocence Project’s Vanessa Potkin and pays tribute to death penalty foe Jim Rowan

Nearly 200 guests attended the 28th Annual Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) Awards Dinner & Meeting on Saturday, June 8 at the Capitol View Event Center in Oklahoma City. The evening included a cocktail reception, a buffet dinner by Ingrid’s Catering, followed by an awards program.  Flowers were provided by A Date With Iris.

Point of View: Oklahoma takes major steps to prevent wrongful convictions

Timothy Durham was living in Tulsa and working at his family’s business in 1993, when his life was turned upside down.

An 11-year-old girl was raped, and Durham’s photograph was placed in a lineup, even though he didn't match the victim’s description of the assailant. The officer conducting the procedure told the victim that Durham had been in prison before — not true — and not surprisingly, she identified him as the culprit. He was found guilty and sentenced to more than 3,000 years in prison.

Four years later, DNA testing proved Durham was innocent and pointed to a convicted rapist named Jess Garrison. However, the victim would never get justice because by the time the truth was revealed Garrison had committed suicide.

Quarterly Update - A Busy 2019

The Case of Willard O'Neal

On January 23, 2019, we had an evidentiary hearing set in the Willard O’Neal post-conviction case. Just one week before the hearing, the case was transferred to Judge Tracy Priddy, who was recently elected to the bench. As a result of this new development, the parties agreed to move the hearing to a new date, March 27, 2019, to give Judge Priddy time to review the brief and exhibits.

2018 Innocence Project Quarter 4 Update

This fall semester, the clinic had four students enroll in the Innocence Clinic class. These students work on real-life cases for the Innocence Project. One case they are currently working on is Michelle Berry's.

As a reminder, Michelle Berry lost her infant daughter in 2003. After a night out, Ms. Berry went to her parents’ home where she lived with her five-year-old son and daughter. She awakened early in the morning after hearing a noise and found her five-year-old son in the hallway and her daughter motionless. There was no forensic evidence that indicated Ms. Berry was involved in the murder of her infant daughter except for her proximity to the child. There was, however, evidence that other people were in the house around the time the murder took place – including the baby’s father. Several pieces of evidence were collected and tested, however, four significant items that were collected from the home were never tested. Ms. Berry was tried for the murder of her infant daughter on three separate occasions. She was finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Oklahoma Innocence Project filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing of those four items of evidence which could potentially prove Ms. Berry’s innocence. A hearing on the motion was heard in July, but we await a ruling on the motion. We are contemplating filing additional motions as necessary. 

2018 Oklahoma Innocence Project Update

Last year was a busy year for students and volunteers in the Oklahoma Innocence Project.  In 2017, we received an additional 39 requests for assistance and closed 68 cases.  This brings the Oklahoma Innocence Project to over 1,500 total requests for assistance since opening its doors in August 2011.  Given the 400 cases awaiting review and the numerous requests we receive for help, Andrea Miller, an Assistant Public Defender and our clinical professor, with the help of students enrolled in the Wrongful Conviction class, are continually reviewing case files to answer those requesting the Clinic’s help.

 Student efforts are critical to the Clinic’s success and provide an invaluable experience to our future lawyers. For instance, in the case of Willard O’Neal, students discovered that some of the evidence collected at the 2001 crime scene was not submitted to a lab to obtain possible DNA evidence.  A client of OKIP since its inception, Mr. O’Neal was convicted of murder based solely upon the uncorroborated preliminary hearing testimony of a woman whose guns were used in the murder.  Upon our students learning that evidence had not been submitted for DNA testing, we filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Tulsa County in June 2015, and in September 2016, we filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing.  

Innocent but Still Guilty

After Fred Steese spent two decades in a Nevada prison for murder, evidence indicating that he was innocent was found buried in the prosecution’s files. It was proof that Mr. Steese, as he’d always claimed, had been hundreds of miles away on the likely day of the murder and couldn’t have been the killer.

In Maryland two years earlier, the conviction of James Thompson, who had also served 20 years for murder and rape and whose case involved police and prosecutorial misconduct, was thrown into overwhelming doubt when his DNA didn’t match the semen found in the victim.

The Innocence Deniers

avontae Sanford was 14 years old when he confessed to murdering four people in a drug house on Detroit’s East Side. Left alone with detectives in a late-night interrogation, Sanford says he broke down after being told he could go home if he gave them “something.” On the advice of a lawyer whose license was later suspended for misconduct, Sanford pleaded guilty in the middle of his March 2008 trial and received a sentence of 39 to 92 years in prison.