For those who did not have the opportunity to meet or work with our former Legal Assistant, Joyce Mayer, it is hard to put into words what she meant to all of us. For that reason, we were deeply saddened by her sudden passing on March 16, 2018. She was the heart and soul of the Oklahoma Innocence Project and it was only fitting that the OCU School of Law and OKIP joined together as a community for a celebration of Joyce’s life and her unwavering commitment to freeing the innocent and wrongfully convicted.
Having some tremendous shoes to fill, we were fortunate enough to hire Cheryl Burns as our Legal Assistant to continue the passion Joyce displayed in helping those who have been unjustly incarcerated. Cheryl previously volunteered in the clinic under Joyce’s guidance and was able to step in and carry on with the same passion Joyce had to help free the innocent. Cheryl is well-versed with the legal system, having spent 15 years as a paralegal in a law firm environment and 15 years as a paralegal in the corporate legal environment. Cheryl brings the strength of her experience, background and desire to assist in making OKIP the gold standard for wrongful conviction clinics around the country.
As of August 2018, we currently have three very active cases in litigation.
Willard O’Neal was wrongfully convicted in 2001 for the murder of a strip club owner and attempted murder of his bodyguard. The only evidence tying Mr. O’Neal to the murder was the fabricated testimony of the state’s main witness who received a plea deal for her testimony. In 2016, the clinic filed a motion with the District Court in Tulsa County to have several items of evidence that were collected from the crime scene tested for DNA evidence. Last year, the OSBI confirmed that Mr. O’Neal was not a contributor and was excluded on those items of evidence. While this finding was a significant development toward proving Mr. O’Neal’s innocence, it was not enough for the District Attorney’s Office to agree to release Mr. O’Neal. We are currently working on an amended petition for post-conviction relief for Mr. O’Neal and have requested additional DNA testing and fingerprint comparisons on potential other suspects. Mr. O’Neal’s evidentiary hearing was set for early August, but with the request for new DNA testing and fingerprint comparisons, the evidentiary hearing was reset for December 2018.
Michelle Berry was convicted in 2009 in Latimer County of the 2003 death of her infant daughter. After a night out, Ms. Berry went to her parents’ home, where she lived with her 5-year-old son and daughter. During the early morning hours, Ms. Berry remembers hearing a noise and awoke to see her motionless daughter and her 5-year-old son in the hallway. Ms. Berry was tried for the murder on her infant daughter on three separate occasions and was finally found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. There was no forensic evidence that indicated Ms. Berry was in anyway involved in the murder of her infant daughter but for her proximity to the child. There was, however, evidence that other people, including the baby’s father, were in the house around the time the murder took place. Several pieces of evidence were collected and tested; however, 4 significant items that were collected from the home were never tested. We filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing of those 4 items of evidence, which could potentially prove Ms. Berry’s innocence. A hearing on our motion was heard in July and we are awaiting the Court’s ruling.
We are preparing another motion for post-conviction DNA testing in the case of James Kidwell. Mr. Kidwell was convicted of first-degree murder of 3 people in Tulsa County. The case is currently being reviewed and handled by a former OKIP clinic student, Ms. Glenn Brown, who is now in private practice, but who felt so strongly about this case that she is donating her time and energy to work on Mr. Kidwell’s case to prove his innocence.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project at OCU School of Law is the only post-conviction relief clinic in the state. We provide students with practical legal experience and a one-of-a-kind opportunity that has life-changing implications for those wrongfully convicted.
Since Oklahoma has now surpassed Louisiana as #1 in incarcerations not only for women but both men and women, it has become even more important for Oklahomans to consider the possibility that some of these individuals are totally innocent of any crime. Whether it was rush to judgment, junk science, fabricated testimony, plea deals, or mistaken identity, it is more than a possibility that many men and women in the Oklahoma prison system that are serving time for crimes they did not commit. The clinic has been inundated with requests for assistance with currently 1,460 cases pending in our system at varying stages of review. The clinic receives approximately 10-15 new cases every month with this quarter not being an exception. 51 cases are in the active phase of our process, 765 are waiting to be reviewed, 191 have been reviewed and are waiting on assignment to students, and 453 are waiting on a completed questionnaire for additional information. OKIP is in need of immediate resources, both volunteers and financial resources, to keep up with our demanding caseload. It is OKIP’s hope that we will soon be able to add a full-time paralegal and Legal Director to assist us in reviewing and addressing our many cases. As always, we are extremely grateful to our donors and volunteers who support OKIP’s work and believe that their donations and time further OKIP’smission.
Finally, we would like to thank Heather Howerton who has agreed to be our volunteer coordinator, Thu Ngo, a forensic science graduate student from the University of Central Oklahoma, and Kysha Miller, a first-year law student at OU who worked at OKIP this summer reviewing cases for us. We also welcome the law school’s new Dean Jim Roth, who is knowledgeable and very supportive of the work we are doing at OKIP. We look forward to the start of a new semester and our continued work to remedy wrongful convictions in Oklahoma.
Thank you for all you do in support of our work and for providing this opportunity to our students.