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.
The Case of Willard O'Neal
Willard O’Neal’s case is still pending in Tulsa County. As you might remember, Willard O’Neal was convicted in 2001 for the murder of Bruce Chamberlain. In 2016 the clinic filed a motion with the District Court in Tulsa County to have several items of evidence tested for DNA evidence. In 2017 the OSBI confirmed that Mr. O’Neal was not the contributor of the DNA on several items of evidence that were collected at the crime scene. While that 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. Based upon this new evidence we filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief for Mr. O’Neal in December 2018. Judge LaFortune set an evidentiary hearing for March 27, 2019. In January 2019, Mr. O’Neal’s case was transferred to Judge Priddy, a newly elected Judge for Tulsa County. On March 27, 2019, we asked Judge Priddy to continue the evidentiary hearing to a new date and subsequently asked Judge Priddy to recuse herself from the case, due to her previous service as an assistant district attorney on the same “team” as the current assistant district attorney assigned to Mr. O’Neal’s appeal, which she agreed to do. The case was then transferred to Judge Sharon Holmes. Judge Holmes rescheduled the evidentiary hearing for September 26 and 27.
The Case of Michelle Barry
We continue to work to have Michelle Barry’s conviction overturned. Ms. Barry was convicted in 2009 for the 2003 death of her infant daughter. She was tried on three previous occasions before a jury found her guilty and sentenced her to life in prison in her 2009. We filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing of 4 items of evidence collected from the crime scene. A hearing on our motion was heard in July, 2018. On May 22, 2019, after two orders from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the District Court of Latimer County issued an order denying Ms. Barry’s request for DNA testing. We filed a Notice of Appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals appealing the Court’s decision. Our brief is due September 13, 2019.
The Case of James Kidwell
Andrea Miller and Glen Brown have filed a motion in Tulsa County for post-conviction DNA testing in the case of James Kidwell. Ms. Brown was one of the first students who participated in the Oklahoma Innocence Clinic and worked on Mr. Kidwell’s case as a student. Mr. Kidwell was convicted of a 2003 triple homicide in Tulsa. His conviction rests in part on DNA evidence that was incomplete and OKIP has discovered unknown DNA evidence at the crime scene that the State’s DNA expert did not testify about at trial. The hearing on the motion is set for September 2019.
Our newest cases involve the wrongful convictions of Beverly Moore and Brandon McCain. The Innocence Project is co-counseling with attorney Christine Cave in challenging the Oklahoma County conviction of Beverly Moore. Ms. Moore, who had no prior criminal history, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of her boyfriend’s son whom the State maintained died as a result of shaken impact syndrome. Through the hard work of Ms. Cave, a federal court judge determined based on new medical evidence that Ms. Moore had proven the probability that she is actually innocent allowing her to litigate her substantive federal constitutional claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and the withholding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution. That determination was made eight (8) years ago. Since then the case has been remanded to state court for an evidentiary hearing and is now back in federal court on an amended habeas petition.
In early 2019, Brandon McCain requested the assistance of OKIP. Mr. McCain was convicted in Beckham County in 2009 of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Mr. McCain filed his own application for post-conviction DNA testing and the matter was initially set for hearing in Beckham County on June 12, 2019. The District Attorney was not able to locate the evidence on June 12, so the Judge continued the hearing to give the State time to locate the evidence gathered in Mr. McCain’s case. On July 31, 2019, the court heard evidence and argument on Mr. McCain’s request for DNA testing. On August, 2019, the Court denied his request. We have filed a Notice of Appeal on behalf of Mr. McCain and will appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.