Freeing Wrongly Convicted 12/12/16 12/12/16 10:01:07 AM
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Tracy Hightower-Henne (left) and Dr. Leah Georges, president of the executive board of NEIP (right), congrarulate Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks on her award.
– Photo by Mark SundermeierFreeing Wrongly Convicted Is a Long,
Complicated, Expensive Journey
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Those committed to seeking justice for the wrongly convicted held a “Champions of Innocence Breakfast” on December 1 in Omaha as both an awareness- and fund-raiser. Anchoring the event were Tracy Hightower-Henne, executive director of the Nebraska Innocence Project (NEIP) of Omaha, and Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP), in Kansas City, Mo.
They presented Nebraska Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks with the Champions of Innocence Award for her work in the Legislature to reform the criminal justice system, including passage this year of a law broadening the scope of appeals.
“I am honored to receive the Nebraska Innocence Project’s Champion of Innocence Award today,” Pansing Brooks said. “Thanks to the Nebraska Innocence Project for their tireless advocacy to ensure exoneration for wrongfully convicted men and women all across our state.”
“My team of innocence advocates grabbed a hammer, chisel, and pick-axe, and removed a mountain to expose the truth. Just as doctors provide hope and save lives, they too are bringing me back to life.”
– Exoneree Floyd Bledsoe
Bledsoe, who was exonerated in 2015 after spending 15 years of a life sentence in prison for the murder of his 14-year-old sister-in-law, was the guest speaker at the breakfast.
He told his story of how he came to be arrested and convicted of first-degree murder based on the testimony of his younger brother, Tom, who had first confessed to the crime, then recanted. KU Law’s Project for Innocence took on Floyd’s case after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 2007. He was freed in 2008 by a federal appeals court, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated his conviction and returned him to prison.
Four years later, KU obtained an order for DNA testing and with funding from MIP, testing finally occurred in 2015. It exonerated Floyd, and implicated his brother and his father. Tom committed suicide shortly after that, leaving behind a note also exculpating Floyd. He was released on December 8, 2015, after nearly 6,000 days behind bars.
The father of two sons, Floyd Bledsoe was forced to leave them at a young age at the time of his conviction. Now, a year after his release, he is in contact with his sons and spends much of his time working to support MIP’s efforts.
Hightower-Henne argued the 2014 appeal in the high profile case of Juneal Pratt. He has maintained his innocence since his 1975 conviction for the rapes of two women. Hightower-Henne successfully fought, all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, to get Pratt DNA testing to prove his innocence.
She successfully argued to the Nebraska Supreme Court that retesting of DNA evidence – first tested in 2005 – should be granted. New and better methods made the testing relevant again, Hightower-Henne argued.
Unfortunately for Pratt, after 40 years, the DNA evidence was too degraded and contaminated to yield any exonerating or exculpatory evidence. He has a parole hearing in April 2017, after serving more than 40 years of his 32-to-90-year sentence. Had Juneal Pratt admitted to guilt in order to be released, he may have probably been paroled by now, but he has steadfastly maintained his innocence, Hightower-Henne said.
Antoine YoungCurrently, Hightower-Henne and the Nebraska Innocence Project are advocating for Antoine Young, convicted of the 2007 murder of a man at a drive-thru window and sentenced to life plus 40 years. The courts denied their request for DNA testing in 2014. NEIP brought another suit in 2015, requesting rec-ords not in evidence at the trial. She said that the NEIP plans to re-file an appeal concerning non-DNA evidence, thanks to a recent law passed by the Legislature.
Innocence ProjectsAfter a few years as “Free the Innocent” in the early 2000s, the Iowa/Nebraska Innocence Project formally launched in January 2005 and became the freestanding Nebraska Innocence Project in 2008. They joined forces with the Midwest Innocence Project in 2015.
The Midwest Innocence Project, part of the nationwide Innocence Network, is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the investigation, litigation, and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in a five-state region. Recent studies conservatively estimate that between two and five percent of all inmates in America are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, with some estimates reaching up to seven percent. This means that somewhere between 2,000 and 7,000 moms, dads, sons, and daughters in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Arkansas are locked behind bars right now for crimes they did not commit.
After a conviction, it takes roughly seven to ten years for an innocent person to be exonerated and the process is very expensive. As of August 2016, the 343 men and women across the country who have been exonerated through DNA served an average of 14 years in prison.
While innocence project cases may concern many issues, DNA is the most common basis for appeals. MIP currently has 600 prisoners on the wait list. They are investigating 40 cases and 12 cases are in litigation. A full exoneration can exceed $325,000 in costs, which is well over half of MIP’s annual budget. The DNA testing of one item costs $1,000.
The Nebraska Innocence Project has worked with more than 50 students from Creighton University, the University of Nebraska and the College of St. Mary. One of the highest profile cases successfully concluded was the exoneration of the “Beatrice 6,” which produced the largest number of exonerated individuals from a single case in the history of wrongful convictions.
The breakfast sought to raise funds for their work. Those interested may make a tax-deductible donation to the Nebraska Innocence Project. Please email the NEIP at: firstname.lastname@example.org for information on donating or volunteering.
Donations can be made and more information can also be found on the organization’s website at: www.nebraskainnocenceproject.org.