Maryland's Innocence Project transfers to UB

Legal fellows assigned cases to help reverse wrongful convictions

September 04, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The University of Baltimore has taken over Maryland's Innocence Project, a group founded by public defenders to ferret out and reverse wrongful convictions, often through DNA testing.

Michele Nethercott, a public defender who has led the unit since its 2002 inception; and Steven Harris, state public defender from 1990 to 2004, direct the new project. At the start of the semester last month, six University of Baltimore legal fellows were assigned in pairs to three cases, and an additional 20 fellows will examine claims of innocence by interviewing inmates who say they were wrongfully convicted, Harris said.

Tomorrow, the university and the public defenders plan to announce the move at a news conference with Barry Scheck, who heads an Innocence Project in New York and is considered the father of post-conviction DNA testing.

Law School Dean Phillip J. Closius said he "didn't hesitate" when the public defender's office approached him with the idea for the transfer.

"It's a great idea for us," he said. "It benefits students because they get to work on criminal cases with DNA evidence, and it benefits society because we can help free the unjustly incarcerated."

Fellows receive two credits per year for their work, Harris said. Nethercott and Harris teach at the University of Baltimore, Harris as distinguished attorney-in-residence at the Stephen L. Snyder Center for Litigation Skills, where the project is now housed.

According to the Web site of Scheck's Innocence Project, which he founded in 1992 with Peter J. Neufeld, 220 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA after having been convicted.

Maryland became a leader in post-conviction DNA testing in 1991 with the Kirk Bloodsworth case. Retested evidence led to freedom for the one-time death row inmate - and pointed to the killer, who eventually pleaded guilty. In 2002, DNA helped exonerate Bernard Webster, a Baltimore County man who was serving a 30-year sentence for rape. Another man, identified by the same DNA that helped free Webster, later pleaded guilty to the crime.

Nethercott represented Webster during the exoneration process and said that after his conviction was overturned, she was inundated with requests from other inmates.

Since then, Nethercott and the two public defenders working with her have received almost 700 requests from inmates seeking their help. The lawyers have filed 16 motions for DNA testing; all but one was granted. The remaining request is pending in Baltimore Circuit Court.

New-trial results

Here's what happened to the eight men granted new trials because of the Maryland Innocence Project's work.

Bernard Webster: Baltimore County 1983 rape case. Prosecutors dropped charges in 2002; another man later pleaded guilty to the crime.

Gregory Jones: Baltimore County 1985 double murder case. The jury hung in a retrial in 2005. Jones then took an "Alford plea," in which he admitted no wrongdoing but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to time served.

Robert Griffin: Baltimore 1986 murder case. He took an Alford plea in 2006 to time served.

Rodney Addison: Baltimore 1998 murder case. At the start of his new trial in 2005, the state dismissed all charges.

Dante Parrish: Baltimore 1999 murder case. Pending new trial.

James Owens: Baltimore 1988 murder case. Pending new trial.

Clifton Footes: Prince George's County 1980 rape case. Accepted plea deal to lesser charges in 2006 and was sentenced to time served.

John Larry Thomas: Prince George's County 1994 rape case. Accepted plea deal to lesser charges in 2005 and was sentenced to time served.

Source Michele Nethercott of the Innocence Project.

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