Great North Innocence Project

Sara Jones. Photo Sarah Whiting

The Innocence Network is an affiliation of groups around the world that try to free wrongfully convicted people and change criminal legal policy. The Great North Innocence Project (GN-IP) represents inmates in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Incarcerated individuals reach out to GN-IP for help. “We only take cases where somebody is claiming actual innocence for the crime. They are not claiming that their sentence was too long or that they were convicted of too high of a charge. They are actually saying, ‘I had nothing to do with the underlying alleged crime,’” says executive director Sara Jones.

“If [a case has] potential for a successful claim, then we will investigate further,” says Jones. “It might mean finding new witnesses [or] re-interviewing previous witnesses who may change their stories. It may be getting evidence tested that was not able to be tested at the time because science was not evolved. There has to be new evidence that can meet a standard — clear and convincing evidence that the person is not guilty.”

Jones points out that wrongful convictions are disproportionately affecting people of color. GN-IP gets about 400 formal requests for help each year, and about 100 cases get to the investigation stage. Students at five law schools help screen requests.

“The presumption of innocence goes away once you are convicted,” Jones adds. “You have to prove you are innocent, which is a difficult standard to meet.”

After a client is released, the inmate’s life does not simply get back to normal. “It is a very traumatic experience to be imprisoned,” Jones says. “If you are imprisoned and you are innocent of a crime, you can imagine that it just compounds the trauma.”

Often life on the outside has changed dramatically, and those being released have to learn how to use new technology, access a driver’s license, and adjust to being with their families again.

Some prosecutors are so committed to maintaining a conviction that they will negotiate to let the inmate out of prison without dismissing the charges.

“If you have been in prison for eight to 10 years, and you are offered the opportunity to go home without exoneration or stay in prison and keep fighting for what might be years, that is a tough choice to make. As you might expect, some people choose to get out of prison without being exonerated.

“If they were convicted wrongly of a sex crime, they may have to register as a sex offender. There are all kinds of hurdles to returning to any semblance of ‘normal life,’ but [people] are ecstatic to be out of prison. The person we helped get out of prison most recently wastalkingabouthowhejustwantedto see stars — something he had not seen for more than six years.”

Volunteer attorneys work with staff attorneys on cases. “One of the volunteer attorneys not only worked incessantly [with a client] to get his freedom, but had weekly phone conversations with him,” says Jones. “You cannot meet some of these people and not develop a bond with them. [They are] amazing; they have the grit and the ability to maintain their hope when such a horrible thing has happened to them.”

In South Dakota, GN-IP recently introduced legislation to establish best practices for eyewitness identification procedures that police use. “We got this very similar, almost identical bill passed in Minnesota a couple of years ago,” says Jones. “It is a matter of making sure everybody is trained on [best practices] and is using them. It makes a huge difference in preventing wrongful convictions.”

Another piece of legislation requires law enforcement organizations to record interrogations. Minnesota established that law through a Minnesota Supreme Court case decades ago. GN-IP is trying again in North and South Dakota to get that provision passed. “It is a win for the accused and prosecutors and police because some people make claims of police coercion or violence,” Jones says. “We are hopeful that we may get that passed in the near future, but legislation often takes a few years.”