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
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
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
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
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
Maxwell directs Reese, a second-year
law student at Georgia State, to file an
open records request to review the district
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?"