The Innocents - Features - Atlanta Magazine

The Innocents

Idealistic law students labor to free the wrongly accused.

Getty Images (Taxi)/Dick Luria

The letters are desperate. They are filled with obvious lies, or sorrowful grievances, or unrestrained rage, or childlike hope. They are peppered with grammatical errors of the uneducated and the legalese of the jailhouse lawyer.

I have been in prison for more than 15 years . . . I need help Desperatly. The DA is stopping me at every turn . . .

More than 2,000—some scrawled, some in careful script—have been meticulously logged. They're stacked beside the fax machine and on the hand-me-down desks and filing cabinets of the Georgia Innocence Project. This is a threadbare operation that relies on the idealism of unpaid law students who take up residence at the mismatched desks or cluster around a small table in front of the executive director's desk; one favors a private spot in a utility closet. They pore over the tales of rapists and murderers, giving each claim of innocence a fair shot even if it seems preposterous.

Somewhere in these piles is another person sitting in a cold cell, breathing stale, cigarette-stained air, doing time for a crime he didn't commit. The interns long to find him. The innocent. The one they can exonerate.

FIRST LESSON: The search for justice is painful.
If you want to believe that most everyone is innocent, you'll discover that most prison inmates really are guilty. If you think most of them really are criminals, you'll find cases that haunt you with lack of proof. If you believe in the system, you'll realize that it's sloppy and uncaring. If you believe in the quest for truth, you'll learn that truth is almost impossible to find.

In the cluttered, windowless Midtown office of the Georgia Innocence Project, executive director Aimee Maxwell tries to tell the interns what to expect. But she knows that, in the end, they will have to learn this lesson on their own.

Nationwide, 164 people have been exonerated by innocence projects. The original was founded by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 and based in New York City. In 1999, the New York group's work led to the exoneration of Calvin Johnson, who had spent 16 years in a Georgia prison for a rape he didn't commit. In late 2005, their efforts helped free Georgian Robert Clark, falsely imprisoned for 24 years.

In 2002, two Georgia State University law students approached the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and asked simply: Why can't we do this here? The question ultimately came to Maxwell, 44, who ran a criminal defense training program for lawyers. Self-effacing and soft-spoken, she's a natural champion of the underdog. Within four months, she raised $100,000, gathered a board of directors (which now includes Calvin Johnson), found office space donated by ChoicePoint (an information broker that has a DNA testing subsidiary) and formed the Georgia Innocence Project.

At the time, Maxwell had a job offer from a blue-chip law firm. She turned it down and now lives and breathes the Innocence Project, acting as a surrogate mother to the interns and a personification of the Lady of Justice to convicted inmates.

I'm writing to ask you for help again and to make you aware that I understand you droping [sic] my case because they say there's no DNA to prove me innocent. But if there is a State law to force me to take a DNA test to prove me guilty of a charge I haven't been arrested for then the State should have to give me a DNA test to prove me innocent of a crime that I was convicted of!

But if there's no DNA from the crime scene, we can't help you! Sometimes the interns wish they could dash back letters filled with as many exclamation points and as much frustration as the ones they receive. Instead, they vent to each other and then practice their best lawyerIy skills, drafting coolly polite responses.

So when someone has a particularly weak claim or a case without a shred of evidence that can be tested, the interns dismiss it as cleanly as they can. Periodically, they gather in a borrowed conference room with Maxwell to review the cases.

Lindsay Reese, 22, a slender, married student who lives in Alpharetta, readjusts her wire-rimmed glasses nervously as she opens her files. She tucks a blond strand behind her ear and begins in a methodical tone: "File 86 is getting a 'no' letter. There's no DNA. File 398 is getting a 'no' letter. There was no rape kit done. File 1246 thinks you are a man. Dear sir. Mr. Aimee Maxwell. He's going to get a 'no' letter. It was child molestation, and there's no DNA."

She has one case she has been running over and over in her mind. His name is Ira Glenn White. He was convicted of breaking into a woman's apartment, hiding in the dark and smoking a cigarette until she got home, then raping and sodomizing her. He is serving two life sentences plus 60 years.

"[The victim] said he was 5'5" to 5'7 " . This guy is 5'11". She said that she didn't have to look up at him, but she was only 5'1". My husband is 10 inches taller than me. So I asked him to stand kind of close to me. I never really noticed it before, but I do have to look up to him," says Reese. "And then he sent us a copy of the photos she was shown in the lineup. She described her attacker as light-skinned. This guy was the only light-skinned person. The one guy. I looked at the pictures, and five of them were dark-skinned. You know, it's kind of suspicious."

Maxwell directs Reese, a second-year law student at Georgia State, to file an open records request to review the district attorney's file.

Melissa Arcila, a native of Colombia, is a disarmingly blunt 22-year-old law student from the University of Georgia. She formed Students for Latino Empowerment at UGA. Her top case involves an inmate convicted of raping a woman at gunpoint in the back seat of her car while her 9-year-old son crouched under the dashboard. The inmate was sunk when his own fingerprint analyst linked him to a partial thumbprint on the doorknob. He insists on his innocence though, and Arcila wonders just how much you can tell from a partial thumbprint.

Marcus Sellars, a second-year student from Mercer University Law School in Macon, who sits across from Reese, hasn't had much to work with. He brings up one complicated case involving rape, sodomy and kidnapping for ransom. Three life sentences plus 20 years,

Sellars launches into an explanation of the two types of sperm found in the rape investigation, motile and nonmotile, including some abnormal sperm that had two tails. It's clear the inmate has been wondering for 25 years whether someone could prove those weren't his sperm.

"He doesn't have abnormal sperm?" asks Maxwell.

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