Thursday, April 3, 2008

Working for Exoneration

April 3, 2008

By: Megan Stephenson - The Daily Iowan

Wilton Dedge was a young 20-something man living in Florida when he was accused of rape and burglary.

The victim identified Dedge as her attacker from a photo lineup. Dedge was charged, convicted, and sentenced to two life sentences. More than 20 years later, Florida exonerated Dedge based on DNA evidence - he wasn't the perpetrator. Dedge can thank the Innocence Project, which spent eight years fighting for his freedom, for his eventual exoneration.

The UI College of Law's public-service department and the Innocence Project of Iowa hosted the award-winning documentary After Innocence on Wednesday. The film described Dedge's, as well as six others' trials and tribulations, to fix the system that wrongfully convicted them.

This event was "a good way to let the law community know what we're doing," said Jude Pannell, a first-year law student at the UI working with the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project in Iowa is just the tip of the ideological iceberg. The national movement of public policy works to exonerate wrongly convicted people, often through DNA testing, and to reform the criminal-justice system. Since its inception in 1992, the Innocence Project has gained 215 post-conviction exonerations - 16 on death row.

Iowa was associated with Nebraska until last year, when lawyers around the state wanted to focus on Iowa cases. The Iowa Lakes Community College's paralegal program takes the cases and does initial screening. After a case is accepted, the Drake University and UI law schools support any testing and litigation with volunteer law students and attorneys. Because the Iowa chapter is so new, it has not yet started any cases, Pannell said.

He also said while the project would take more than just DNA-affiliated cases, it certainly makes it easier. The national Innocence Project found 75 percent of convictions overturned were because of DNA testing.

After Innocence addressed a significant problem associated with the exonerations: what the innocent convicts do after they are released. Many were still fighting the system years after their release. Among those people featured in the film is Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on death row for a rape and murder he did not commit. He now protests the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Compensation was another considerable issue to face. Many states have adopted or are debating financial compensation for wrongly convicted persons; Iowa has a reform compensation act. If the injured party pleaded not guilty, and her or his conviction is overturned, he or she is eligible up to $50 per day of incarceration, plus lost wages and lawyer fees.

"If someone knows they are innocent, they will look for opportunities to help themselves," Pannell said.

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