The Innocents

Idealistic law students labor to free the wrongly accused.

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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.

“Yeah [he does], but the fact of the
matter is, the sperm were never tested to
determine who they belonged to.”

At 36, Sellars is the oldest intern. He
has an entire career behind him, having
burned out as a history teacher in inner-city
middle and high schools. He’s also
the only African-American. He grew up
in Rochester, New York, in rough, crime-ridden
neighborhoods. He says of about
20 childhood buddies, he’s the only one
who went to college. Five are dead. Ten
are in prison—or have been.

For Sellars, law is not just a career. It’s
a quest to exonerate. He has two brothers,
an uncle and a cousin in federal prisons,
and he believes them when they say
they are not guilty. He’s quiet when the
other interns banter and prod each other
as they sit shoulder to shoulder in the
cramped office. He hasn’t even told them
the story of his background and relatives.
He doesn’t want to impose his experience
on their idealism.

Sellars leans across the table with a
question for Maxwell: “Does this carry
any weight with you that this was 25 years
ago and he still says ‘I’m not guilty’?”

“No,” she retorts. The interns laugh at
the crispness of her response, particularly
since she’s known for her soft-heartedness.
“There are things that make me
think they’re not guilty, but that’s not one
of them.”

SECOND LESSON: Believing in innocence is one thing. Proving it is another.
There’s no better mark of proof than
DNA, the tiniest shards of identity. When
you walk into a room, you leave not just
fingerprints but a few random skin cells.
A hair. Perhaps a trace of saliva on a
water glass. If someone could gather
those infinitesimal pieces of you, they
could trace your presence on the scene.
They could prove that this genetic detritus
belonged to you and not to someone
else. Or that it could not possibly have
belonged to you, that someone else had
been there.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, when most of
the inmates now appealing to the Project
were convicted, the best anyone could do
was match blood types or compare hairs
microscopically. For example, in Calvin
Johnson’s case, an analyst testified that
he had type O blood and that he was a
“secretor”—his blood type could be
found in saliva and semen—the same as
the rapist. Yet those facts would be true
for about 40 percent of African-Americans,
explains Greg Hampikian, an Innocence
Project board member and forensics
expert. The hair evidence, in fact, did
not match Johnson’s.

To understand DNA testing, think
back to high school biology. DNA is
made up of patterns of nucleotides
known as A, G, C and T. DNA tests look
for “short tandem repeats” (STRs) sequences
of A, G, C and T that repeat at
a given location. For example, four repetitions on the chromosome from your
mother and seven on the chromosome
from your father would make you a “47”
at that location.

In the early days, analysts needed a
large quantity of DNA and only tested
one or two locations. Today’s labs can
replicate DNA to create larger samples
and compare STRs in 13 locations. When
Calvin Johnson finally had his DNA tested—16 years after he entered prison—it
showed he couldn’t have been the rapist.
The actual criminal is still at large.

Science is a savior for the wrongly
convicted—but only if there’s evidence
to test. These inmates wore out their
legal appeals long ago. Georgia law now
requires evidence to be preserved for at
least 10 years after a conviction, but in
older cases, the evidence is elusive.

It could be in the court reporter’s
house, the district attorney’s file, a police
department storage shed—or destroyed.
The interns file open records requests
and bounce from one bureaucratic
department to another. No one is too
fired up about trying to help unearth a
long-lost rape kit or pair of panties. Yet
the interns know that without the semen
or blood stains, they will never uncover
an innocent person and set him free.

THIRD LESSON: Innocence endures the test of time.
Clarence Harrison knocks lightly on
the door before entering the office. He’s a
shock of athletic red, with shorts and sleeveless tee and logo-less baseball cap.
It’s all so coordinated, except for the
enormous silver cross hanging around his
neck, but it looks incongruous on this paunchy man with a trim, graying beard.

It’s been more than a year and a half
since Harrison was released from prison
after serving 17 yeaRs for a rape he did
not commit, and he still has the air of a
modern-day Rip Van Winkle. Harrison
stands in the doorway hesitantly until
Maxwell spies him from her office.
“What’s this outfit?” she prods teasingly.

“Just tryin’ to be comfortable.”

Harrison looks around at the interns,
who have swiveled in their chairs to
smile at him. “What y’all comin’ up
with? Anything good?”

“We’re going to have to visit some
courthouses to look at some cases,”
responds Arcila. “Look at some shady
DA work.”

He laughs. “That’s pretty much it.”

“I just want to see what evidence
they’ve got. It doesn’t seem like there will
be any. But I think everybody’s shady. I’m
just into conspiracy theories.” Arcila’s
smile doesn’t seem cynical or conspiratorial
at all.

Maxwell shepherds the group into a
break room, where the interns rush over
to the machine that gives out 25-cent
Cokes, then settle around a laminate
table. Since Harrison got out of prison,
his main avocation has simply been talking about himself.

Before Harrison has a chance to launch
into his oft-told tale, Sellars interjects:
“Did you run across people who are
innocent, they were locked up and you
kind of knew they were innocent?” To
Sellars, Harrison bears an uncanny
resemblance to one of his convicted relatives.
He even talks like him. He leans
closer because Harrison speaks softly.

“There are people I ran across that I
believed were innocent. It’s just that
proving they’re innocent, that’s the hard
thing to do,” says Harrison.

“What was their demeanor? Was there
something about them?” Sellars prods.

Harrison talks about an inmate who
never really knew the facts of the crime
he was convicted of committing. He only
knew what was told in court. As the
years passed in prison, he forgot those details and knew virtually nothing about
his own case. Harrison figures if he had
committed the crime, he would never
have forgotten it.

“It’s just the little things that go unnoticed
that tell you whether this person is
guilty or innocent.”

Harrison segues into a description of
life behind bars. Waking at 5 a.m., eating
breakfast at 5:30, lining up for work
detail and call at 7, school or trades at 8,
or getting thrown in “the hole” for refusing
to work. Once he decided to take
classes, things improved a little. But he
spent hours wandering in the dormitory,
the TV droning every day from 4:30 to
11 p.m. Then a fitful sleep on a cot in a
cell and waking up to the same damn
thing the next day. Some inmates would
start fights just to get a little excitement,
he says.

“I would prefer that I receive a death
penalty than receive another 20 years in
prison,” he says. “I think that would be
more merciful.”

What about the victim? Did you ever
talk to her? Did she ever apologize?

No, Harrison says. He went back to
the place where the crime occurred, near
a bus stop in the Decatur neighborhood
where he once lived, and marveled at
how much it had changed. How much
everything had changed. Folks didn’t
have cell phones or computers when he
went into prison. His wife divorced him
after he was arrested. His two children
grew up without him. He is now married
to a woman who befriended him and
believed in him during his prison stay.

Not being bitter is something he has
worked at. He blames the system, not the
victim who misidentified him. But when
Susan Anton, an intern from Chicago,
starts quizzing him about victims, he remarks, “The most heinous crime of all
is to be a victim of a victim because a victim
shows no mercy.”

Sellars has another question. “After 15
or 20 years—let’s say it’s a life sentence—do
you think they would still try to get
out, claiming they’re innocent?”

“For a man to maintain his innocence
for 15 or 20 years, it requires to be looked
into,” replies Harrison. “I’m not saying
he could be innocent or guilty. It’s our
responsibility to make sure justice is
always served.”

FOURTH LESSON: You can’t read innocence or guilt on their faces.
Reese and Arcila walk into the vast
Justice Center of Clayton County, a faux historical building that looks like a
supersized antebellum home, complete
with portico and enormous colonnade.

The clerk in the DA’s office has the file
ready and ushers them into a cubicle.
Reese opens the file and sees a brown
paper bag, stapled shut. She fingers it. It’s
a cigarette butt, found near the door
where the rapist waited for his victim,
who was a nonsmoker. “Sweet,” she says.

Yellow legal pad pages describe the
case from the DA’s perspective. The victim’s
description didn’t exactly match. He
was at least four inches too tall. But he
had lied about when he received an eviction
notice and moved out. That made his alibi weak, at best. Ira White and his mom are absolute liars! the DA wrote.

They flip through, focusing for a few
moments on White’s lineup photo, in
which he is scowling. Does he look
guilty? They keep hunting for anything
that lists the evidence. They need some
clue as to what happened to the stained
pants—maybe a snip of cloth, maybe a
slide of the semen. Anything with DNA.

“It’s not looking too hopeful for this
guy,” says Arcila.

“I still have hope,” says Reese.

Did not see knot on ear, the DA noted.
“She double-starred that,” says Arcila.

“Yeah, ’cause that’s a problem for
her.”

She again absolutely and unequivocally
IDs him in court. There is no Q in
her mind.
The DA hammers in on that
identification in closing statements.

“In her mind, he already is the rapist
whether he is or not,” says Reese.

The two young women close the file,
return it and move on to the microfilm
room of the superior court clerk’s office.
They find no sign of the other evidence.

Two weeks later, Reese meets White
face to face. The name in the file
becomes a person, and she can’t help but
search for clues of guilt or innocence.

He doesn’t look the way she imagined.
He’s too slight. He has narrow shoulders
and a thin waist, and though his prison
documents confirm that he is 5’11”, he is
far from towering. The rape victim had
identified her rapist as short and slender.
Now that Reese stands before inmate Ira
White in a counseling office of the Autry
State Prison, she wavers in her conviction
that his height was a tip-off that he was
the wrong guy.

When he was arrested, White had Jeri
curls, but his shaved head now makes
him look older. He also has at least two
prison-made tattoos: a griffin (part eagle,
part lion) and wolf that cover up an old
marijuana leaf tattoo and a small tattoo
of “13 1/2″ on his hand—”12 jurors, one
judge and a half-assed chance,” he explains.

In their meeting, White is almost manically
elated by these women who came to visit. He
hasn’t slept since the day before. With so
many hours in prison to ruminate over
his case, he remembers specific reports
by the date they were issued. He corrects
Reese on details. He has collected reams
of documents—including one that he
says never appeared at trial showing that
a hair found on the victim’s panties didn’t
match her or him.

His voice is soft and low but rises, dripping
with bitterness, as he rails at the DA:
“She knew exactly what she was doing.
She knew she had the wrong person, and
she did not care.”

Reese and Maxwell warn him that a
positive DNA test would doom him to a
lifetime in prison. It would be incontrovertible
proof of his guilt. “If this were
to come back positive, you are not going
to get paroled,” says Maxwell, kindly
but firmly. “It’s really risky. I just want
to tell you.”

“No worries,” he says, almost cockily,
shaking his head.

They promise that they will keep looking
for more evidence. So far, they have
just the cigarette butt. It’s a start, but ideally,
they want to find something more.

As they stand to leave, Maxwell asks
him, “Is this what you expected?”

“Not totally—but it’s more than
enough,” he says.

“Did you expect us to tell you we were
going to get you out tomorrow?” she says
teasingly.

“I was hoping so. Hoping against
hope,” he says, returning the smile.

“I feel disappointed,” Reese confesses
later, as the car whizzes past a monotony
of central Georgia pine trees and dead-end
diners on the four-hour ride back to
Atlanta. “I guess I just wanted to go and
talk to him and have no doubt in my
mind.” She dissects each interchange. He
didn’t seem aggressive or scary. But could
he have been too slick? Was he lying?

“If it’s him, I sat in a room with him, I
shook his hand, I gave him respect, and
he didn’t deserve it if he’s a rapist,” says
Reese, suddenly weighing the possibility
of his guilt. “I know I shouldn’t feel that
way, especially if I’m going to do criminal
defense. But if he did it, then I sat in a room with a rapist who did these terrible
things to this woman—and I believed
him. And I believed him, and I’m a fool.”

“One way or another, if we find the
DNA, we’ll know for sure,” Maxwell
reassures her. “Then we’ll never have to
doubt.”

A week later, Arcila takes a whirlwind
trip to Savannah on behalf of Eric
Williams, the man convicted of raping the
woman in the car while her son crouched
under the dashboard. The partial fingerprint
is a little troublesome. But there are
some problems with the prosecution’s
case too. The victim identified someone
else in the photo lineup, but when police
couldn’t find that person for a live lineup,
they substituted Williams instead. He had
an alibi. Co-workers testified that he was
driving home from work with them.

“It’s so shady,” says Arcila dismissively.
“Typical Georgia racist justice.”

The last time Arcila was in Savannah,
she was wearing green and drinking green
beer at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Now, she is wearing heels and dress pants
and headed for the courthouse with fellow intern Susan Anton and Lisa George, the
Project’s communications director (and
only employee besides Maxwell). Arcila is
a little on guard, expecting the district
attorney’s office to stonewall them.

They are ready for her. Boxes of documents
rest on a cart in a conference room.

Arcila opens a thin cardboard box and
peers into a translucent black bag. She
catches her breath as she spies a pair of
gray panties with an obvious stain. She doesn’t want to touch anything, but she
jostles the contents to look. She sees the
door handle, a T-shirt and a pair of work
pants but no sign of the lifted fingerprint.

The next day, after a night at a cheap
motel outside of town, they leave Savannah’s
prim 19th century homes and tinseled
oaks. The terrain transforms into
scraggy marsh as they drive through
vacant southeast Georgia towns to Ware
State Prison. It is a benign-looking brick
building that, without all the menacing
barbed-wire fences, could resemble a
converted motel. In the distance, prisoners
are working in the yard.

The women hand over their driver’s
licenses, step through metal detectors and
follow a prison guard into a lobby that
looks jarringly like a school, with shiny
floors and little couches and a big round
clock. They must wait while the prison
completes a shakedown.

Eric Williams walks in, glistening with
sweat, still wearing his sunglasses. He’s a
stocky man with heavy jowls, close-cropped
hair and a trim mustache. He
smiles and shakes hands and, in fact,
looks rather casual, as if he had visitors
like them all the time.

Arcila gives him the usual warning
about how DNA evidence could confirm
his guilt and ruin his chances of ever getting
parole. “Do you want us to go forward,
or do you want us to stop?”
George asks pointedly.

Williams looks resolute. “I have done
some things. I had a temper. But I’m not a
rapist.”

Arcila asks him about the fingerprint.
How did it get there? “I’d like to know
that myself,” he says. “That’s something
that has haunted me for 20 years.”

They talk about his past—his time in the military, his previous conviction for aggravated assault. “I’ll do my time for
what I deserve, but this is something I did
not do,” he insists.

They talk about the trial, his alibi and
another rape that police tried but never
did pin on him. He will be eligible for
parole. But that’s almost beside the point.
He says he doesn’t want to live with the
stigma of being a sex offender, with this
charge of raping a schoolteacher while
her son cowered in the car.

As they leave, George once again
reminds him that if he’s guilty, the DNA
test will prove it. He shakes his head and
says, once again, that he’s not guilty.

Arcila walks out, buoyed, believing
him, wishing that she had that fingerprint
and could prove, with 21st century technology,
that it wasn’t his.

FIFTH LESSON: Be patient.
In a loft of Manuel’s Tavern, the interns
sit in a row on one side of a long set of
tables. They look well-groomed but, with
the exception of Sellars, who wears a suit,
not exactly dressed up. This is the most
important moment of their summer, so
there’s an undercurrent of nervous tension
and strained casualness.

Scattered around other tables are the
members of the Project’s legal advisory
board, a set of public defenders and criminal
defense attorneys who will decide
which, if any, of the interns’ cases they
will accept as clients. Without their okay,
the Project cannot move forward to file
legal motions and test DNA.

Reese rises first, with an aura of confidence
and the voice of a courtroom attorney,
to present the case of Ira Glenn
White.

A battery of questions ensues when she
says she wants to take him as client and
test the cigarette butt. Have you talked to
the jurors? Have you talked to the attorney
in the related civil suit over the rape?
What about the similar rape that was
linked to the case but that he was never
charged with?

“What’s the next step short of testing
the cigarette butt? What can we still do
that won’t cost us a bunch of money?”
quizzes Jill Polster, one of the Project’s
founders.

Reese sighs heavily, impatiently. She
tries again to explain. “I want to file ten motions.
I think Aimee is with me on this.
We’ll be trying to get the state to pay for
the DNA testing and maybe they’ll produce
something else.”

She wishes fervently that Maxwell were
there to back her up , but a death in the
family has forced her to miss this meeting.
Polster says bluntly, “I have a problem
spending money on the cigarette butt
because it’s not going to walk him out the
door.” Reese’s face reddens as Polster
suggests she continue working and bring
the case back in three months. “You look
disappointed.”

“I am, if that stands. I’m disappointed,
absolutely. ”

“You want us to take him as a client
and file motions to test the DNA,” reiterates
September Guy, the other co-founder.

“Yes, absolutely. Yes, I do.”

“Just to get in court, we’ve got to
show that the evidence is conclusive,”
Jim Bonner, who is with the Georgia
Public Defender Standards Council,
says didactically.

“But they admitted it as evidence!”
Reese’s face crumples. Her hand tightly
grasps the empty chair next to hers. She
takes an audible gulp of water.

“I understand that. You’ve got me persuaded.
But I don’t think it’s going to
open it up—”

Reese suggests the DNA on the cigarette
butt might match the DNA of another convicted rapist, which would cast doubt on White’s conviction. But the
board members are not convinced.

“We’re not saying we’re not going to
take him [as a client],” says Polster. “I
want you to understand that. We’re just
saying we have to exhaust every possibility
of finding the evidence that will walk
him out the door.”

Arcila tries to come to Reese’s defense.
“The biggest issue we have is finding evidence,”
she says. “I mean, nobody ever
seems to know where it goes. You know
what I’m saying? They always give you
another phone number, another person,
even the court reporter always dies or
disappears or something happens . . .”

But it’s time to move on. Reese sits
down and picks at her cold tuna melt.

By the time Arcila rises to address the
silenced room, she has a slim, cocky
smile. Hers is not an entirely lost cause.
“I’ll try to get you excited about a case,”
she says.

“We’re excited,” remarks Polster.

“I actually found a pair of underwear
that was introduced into evidence as the
underwear the victim was wearing.”

Arcila goes on to tell about Eric
Williams case, his alibi, his lineup, the
fingerprint. Surely, after working at a
road construction site with liquid asphalt
in 90-degree heat (she checked the
Farmer’s Almanac), he would have
stunk—and the victim would have
noticed that.

The panty stain is “nice and crusty,”
and Hampikian told Arcila it would be
no problem to recover DNA.

She thought the fingerprint would be a
major obstacle, but it turns out that these
defense attorneys relish the thought of
disproving a so-called fingerprint expert.
In 1987, the analyst used a magnifying
glass to match a partial thumbprint.
Today, investigators would use a computer
comparison.

“Here we have definitive evidence,”
says Arcila. “The question is whether
we believe enough in the case to test the
evidence.”

“I like it. Let’s take it,” says Polster. “I
think it’s worth it on the fingerprint evidence
alone.”

“That would be awesome,” sighs
attorney Gerard Kleinrock.

Sitting in the corner, Sellars has hardly
said a word. He put his greatest effort
into a case that blew apart with one
phone call. He thought perhaps there
was something fishy about the case of an
inmate convicted in the armed robbery of
a liquor store. The Georgia Bureau of
Investigation had uncovered a mask
worn by the robber but didn’t test the
hairs found on the mask until two years
later. Could they have mistakenly mixed
up the sample hairs provided by this
inmate, essentially testing the sample as
the damning evidence?

The inmate insists he didn’t commit
the crime. Sellars believed him.

Until the day, out of curiosity, he called
the inmate’s ex-wife. She, too, had wanted
to believe him. But then, in a doorway
of their home, she discovered an empty
moneybag that belonged to the liquor
store. “How did it get there?” she
demanded. He said he didn’t know. She
told Sellars her husband had been a masterful
conman. She knew in her heart
that he had robbed the store.

“This case was an example of how we
try to filter things as carefully as possible,”
Sellars says serenely, as the other
interns mill about at Manuel’s and contemplate
drinking something stronger
than Coke to mark the end of their summer.
The cadence of laughter and strains
of music fill the room from the bar
below. “We haven’t closed this case, but
the door is actively closing. I put all this
effort because I thought this guy might
have something.”

Sellars isn’t angry about being conned.
He isn’t upset that he came to the Legal
Advisory Board meeting empty-handed.
He plans to continue working with the
Innocence Project when he can, traveling
from Macon.

“I feel about as excited as I was on day
one, today,” he declares. “The excitement
hasn’t waned. As long as I’m dealing
with the have-nots and the innocents, that’s perfectly fine with me.”

Beyond the angry desperation of the
letters, beyond the yearning idealism of
the interns, beyond the cold scrutiny of
the lawyers, Sellars has the patience to
wait to find someone who needs to be
set free. “I’ve faced defeat all my life,
but I’ve always gotten off the mat to
win every time,” he says. “I wouldn’t
doubt for one minute that I’ll be part of
an exoneration.”

FINAL LESSON: Keep on searching.
Just a few days later, in an effort to
console Reese, Maxwell calls a Clayton
County assistant DA and asks for a
more thorough search for the Ira White
evidence. He has a generous offer. Come
and look for yourself, he says.

The evidence room is a storage space
with metal shelving and boxes marked
only by shelf location. Reese heads for
the room with evidence slated for
destruction. Maxwell takes another
look at Section C2, Box 2, the location
marked on the evidence sheet. The box
is empty.

She scans the entire Section C, then
Section B. She’s about to join Reese when
she randomly peers inside Box 1 in Section
D2. She sees the name, “White, Ira
Glenn,” and like someone momentarily
dazed by the opening of a window shade,
she pauses. “Oh my God,” she says. “I
think I’ve got the evidence.”

She asks the Clayton County investigator
who accompanied them to take out
the contents. An empty envelope. Some
vacuum sweepings and a blue button in a
plastic baggie. Then he pulls out the rape
kit and a clipping from the stained black
pants worn by the victim immediately
after the rape.

The assistant DA offers to send the evidence
to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation
for testing, short-circuiting the usual
legal proceedings and saving the project
money. The Legal Advisory Board hastily
agrees to take White as a client, through
an e-mail consensus.

Maxwell and Reese call White, and the
prison cooperates by bringing him to the
phone. They give him one last chance to
back out. He insists on going forward.
“We’ve already opened Pandora’s
box,” says Maxwell. “Now we get to
find out for sure.”

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