Jan Stiglitz, left, and Justin Brooks, co-directors of California and Hawaii Innocence Projects, talk with client Timothy Atkins and California Western School of Law student Wendy Koen in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Law school program analyzes convictions
Innocence Project lawyers have helped free about 190 inmates
University of Hawaii law students and professors are reviewing the cases of about two dozen Hawaii inmates through a project that recently helped free a California man who spent 20 years in jail.
The William S. Richardson School of Law received a $3,500 grant this year from the Hawaii Justice Foundation to support the school's Hawaii Innocence Project. Hawaii is one of the last states to adopt the program, which claims to have exonerated more than 190 people across the country, including 14 who were sentenced to death.
Under the project, which was launched here in 2005, UH students, professors as well as public and private criminal defense lawyers partner with California staffers to investigate and litigate criminal cases where there is compelling evidence of innocence.
No isle inmate has been exonerated since the project started, because it takes many years to close most cases, said Justin Brooks, of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law.
As an example, Brooks said he worked for about four years to reverse the murder conviction of Timothy Atkins, a 41-year-old California inmate released from prison Friday after spending two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.
When he was 19, Atkins was convicted of shooting a man during an attempted carjacking on New Year's Day 1986. But the conviction was thrown out because a key witness recently admitted she was lying when she told police Atkins had been an accomplice in the killing.
"Just like Hawaii, we didn't have any (exonerations) for a few years because it takes that long," Brooks said. "I suspect we are going to get some exonerations out there as well because Hawaii hasn't been doing DNA for as long as California has."
Recent advancements in DNA analysis -- including mitochondrial tests of hair strands missing the root -- have become critical to solving old convictions, Brooks said.
Virginia Hench, a UH law professor who heads the state's innocence program, said the convictions of about 25 inmates being examined were screened by staffers at California Western. UH is partnering with the mainland school, which processes about 1,000 cases each year, because UH did not have enough resources to run the project on its own.
Hench could not provide details on the Hawaii cases, but said that all have a chance of being reversed and include murders and rapes.
Prisoners "are not even eligible unless they have long sentences," Hench said. "All of them are serious crimes. We don't get parking tickets."
Brook Hart, a Honolulu criminal defense attorney, said the project takes students through all steps of a case, from interviewing inmates in prison, speaking to prosecutors, tracking down witnesses and gathering evidence.
"It's an excellent vehicle for students to learn how to avoid huge mistakes as lawyers," he said. "We are looking for actual innocence, but we are also looking for mistakes that may have compromised the fairness of a person's trial to the extent that they ought to have a new trial."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.