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.

On March 27, 2019, the investigators, witnesses, students, Legal Administrator Cheryl Burns and Executive Director Vicki Behnna gathered in Tulsa for the presentation of evidence. Just before the evidentiary hearing started, a “resolution” to the case was discussed with the Assistant District Attorney. Additionally, we had a discussion with Judge Priddy regarding whether she should recuse herself from the case because she was a Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney when this crime occurred and had been on the same “team” as the Assistant District Attorney currently assigned to Mr. O’Neal’s post-conviction case. In the end, we were unable to reach a “resolution” of the matter and on April 17, 2019, we asked Judge Priddy for a continuance and to recuse herself, which she agreed to do. We are waiting for the case to be reassigned and a new hearing date set. 

The Case of Michelle Berry

The clinic has been waiting since last summer for a ruling on Michelle Berry’s application for post-conviction DNA testing. We filed a writ with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals requesting an order from the District Court Judge on our motion. The writ is still pending. The District Court in Latimer County has so far failed to abide by the OCCA’s order. We are continuing to fight for Ms. Berry’s right to have critical evidence submitted for DNA testing.

Innocence Network Conference

Andrea Miller and Vicki Behenna attended the annual Innocence Network Conference in April in Atlanta, Georgia. It was inspiring to hear the stories of those who have been wrongfully convicted throughout the United States after having spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit. It refreshed us and inspired us to continue the fight here in Oklahoma. 

On the legislative front, the clinic has been working with the New York Innocence Project on legislation to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. During the legislative session, the New York Innocence Project, working with Senator Julie Daniels (R - Bartlesville) and Senator Kay Floyd (D - Oklahoma City), introduced SB 636 (which embraces best practices when it comes to recording suspect interrogations to avoid false confessions) and SB 798 (which addresses incorporating certain best practices on eyewitness identification to avoid misidentification of innocent people). Both pieces of legislation have become law in Oklahoma!

Students and Volunteers

We have had more law students enrolled in the clinic during the spring semester than we have ever had in the past. We have five students in the basic clinic class and four students in the advance clinic class. The students in the basic class have been reviewing cases to see if the cases meet our criteria and to start finding their path to innocence. The advance students have been assisting with Mr. O’Neal’s case and working on a new case for James Henderson, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001. They have prepared a motion for post-conviction DNA testing which will be filed by the end of April, 2019.

In addition, former OCU Law student Glenn Brown '12 continued to work on James Kidwell’s case. She volunteered by reviewing the case and preparing an application for post-conviction DNA testing, which was filed by May 1st.

We had another volunteer lawyer, Jim Priest, former Sunbeam Family Services CEO, working on the case of Daniel Blue. We are in the early stages of review and will be providing updates on the development of the case.

Howard K. Berry Award

The Oklahoma Innocence Project received the Howard K. Berry Award from the Oklahoma County Bar Association during the Law Day celebration on May 1, 2019 in Oklahoma City. We are incredibly proud of the work our students, volunteers, and staff do each and every day to right wrongful convictions here in Oklahoma. This would not have been made possible without the help of Cheryl Burns and Andrea Miller who work incredibly hard to further the mission of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. They are dedicated to the service of our multitude of clients who have suffered from having been convicted of crimes they did not commit.