Crime & Courts

Archive | Lawyers aim to correct S.C. justice's mistakes

It wasn't a blockbuster movie, but it made a big impression on Columbia criminal defense lawyer Joe McCulloch.

"The Thin Blue Line," a 1988 documentary, chronicles the case of Randall Adams, convicted and sentenced to death in the 1976 shooting of a Dallas policeman.

Adams, who had no prior record, was behind bars until the movie came out. In the film, David Harris, a career criminal who had fingered Adams for the killing, admitted Adams was innocent.

"That kind of early on influenced me with the idea that we do make mistakes," said McCulloch, who was a Columbia prosecutor early in his 25-year career.

McCulloch believes plenty of mistakes have been made in South Carolina's criminal justice system. The Palmetto Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization he helped found two years ago, is aimed at correcting problems and freeing innocent people from prison.

But the program has yet to free anyone. McCulloch admits it hasn't been easy.

"This is real life," he said. "These people didn't get convicted easily, and they're not going to get un-convicted easily."

No prosecutor wants to see innocent people behind bars, said Tommy Pope, the solicitor for York and Union counties.

"Our job is about justice," he said. "If there are innocent folks out there, I've got an obligation to do everything possible to make sure they are exonerated."

Pope, former president of the S.C. Solicitors Association, said he would support McCulloch's group if it is "for the purpose of assisting the truly innocent."

TOUGH CASES

So far, the organization's two best cases are an Orangeburg County murder case that is nearly 30 years old and a 15-year-old Charleston County rape case, McCulloch said. He declined to identify the defendants or other specifics.

But there is contradictory evidence in each case. In the Orangeburg County case, a co-defendant who signed a sworn statement recanting his testimony now alleges he was pressured by the defendant into recanting, McCulloch said. The hang-up in the Charleston County case is finding physical evidence for DNA testing, he said.

Finding cases hasn't been a problem, said volunteer lawyers Elizabeth Franklin and Kerry McTigue. The group has received at least 150 requests from inmates, many of whom were convicted of murder or sex offenses.

News about the program quickly spread by word of mouth, the lawyers said.

"It's fairly well known among the inmate population that there is an innocence project in South Carolina," said McTigue, who mainly does corporate defense work with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia.

McCulloch said he has received referrals from other lawyers and even one from a judge who wasn't involved in the case in question.

Most of the cases are rejected because they don't meet the organization's criteria. To be accepted, inmates must have been in prison for at least four years and have exhausted initial state appeals.

They must also have claims of actual innocence, the lawyers said. An inmate, for example, who admits being present at a crime but claims he wasn't a main participant wouldn't be accepted.

If an inmate's application is accepted, lawyers or investigators will try to interview him and others connected with the case, as well as review trial transcripts and other court and police documents.

It's a lot of work that can easily involve hundreds of hours on each case; that's why more help is needed, McCulloch said. The group has about 50 volunteers, including lawyers, but that isn't enough, he said.

"There are needles in a haystack that we are looking for," he said.

FINDING A HOME

McCulloch said he would like to see the program run from either USC's School of Law or the recently created Charleston School of Law, with paid staff. Law students could do much of the volunteer work.

USC law dean Burnele Powell and Alex Sanders, who helped start the private Charleston school, have expressed interest in helping, though neither school has made commitments, McCulloch said.

Powell said he wants to see a "fleshed-out" proposal from McCulloch before making recommendations. But he supports the project, noting he helped establish a similar program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was a law professor before taking the USC job.

"My interest - and I would hope the interest of everybody involved - would be to focus on freeing innocent people," he said.

Sanders, board chairman of the Charleston school, said the project is a "very worthwhile endeavor." But with the school's first classes starting in the fall, "extra things will come later," he said.

In the 30 other states with similar projects, most are at law schools, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful conviction cases nationwide. The project is at New York City's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, at Yeshiva University.

"You really need some energetic, full-time people on the ground doing it," said Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project co-founder, best known as one of O.J. Simpson's defense lawyers. "What you really need to do is to create a critical mass (of support)."

Scheck was the guest speaker at a fund-raiser two years ago in Charleston that brought in about $12,000 for the South Carolina program, McCulloch said.

Scheck's organization concentrates solely on cases with DNA evidence. The Palmetto Innocence Project does not limit itself to that, McCulloch said.

Having the program at a law school would bring "instant credibility" and help with fund raising, said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

The center, founded about five years ago, has been instrumental in exonerating eight inmates, including two on death row, Warden said. It has a full-time staff of about 10, with 16 law school students assigned at any given time to cases as part of their class work, Warden said. They have more help from outside lawyers and other volunteers.

Warden said that although the center has met "vigorous opposition" by prosecutors involved in its cases, top law enforcement officials generally are receptive to its proposals.

McCulloch is hoping for a similar response.

"This is not about embarrassing the system or going after prosecutors," he said. "It is about recognizing that no system is perfect."

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