Since its establishment at the West Virginia University College of Law in 2012, the West Virginia Innocence Project has been working with the national Innocence Project network to exonerate people who are wrongfully incarcerated.
According to their statistics, 10 percent of prisoners on death row have been wrongfully convicted, and the organizations want to know why?
“Most of the time, the criminal justice system gets it right. I think that’s important to realize and acknowledge,” said Valena Beety, Director of the West Virginia Innocence Project. “But that makes it all the more imperative to find out where we got it wrong and why?”
Each time the criminal justice system is wrong, and a person is wrongfully incarcerated, the West Virginia Innocence Project says it’s an opportunity to make the system better.
The West Virginia Innocence Project is made up of three law students, a supervising attorney and Beety, who is also an Associate Professor of Law.
Since its establishment, they have heard from hundreds of people in the state’s prisons who claim their innocence. To take a case, after a rigorous screening process, the Innocence Project must, above all, believe in the person’s innocence.
“And that there is evidence to show that the person is innocent,” Beety said. “The standard is so much higher to reverse a conviction than to get a conviction in the first place. We have to literally prove to the court that this person did not commit the crime. The best way to do that is with DNA evidence that points to the true perpetrator.”
“In a lot of these cases, we see existence of DNA evidence from many many years ago during a time when we didn’t have the methods of testing that are available now,” said Eric Haught, who recently graduated from the WVU College of Law, but worked with the Innocence Project in his third year.
DNA is at the center of the current case of Charles “Manny” Kilmer, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Sharon Lewis in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Kilmer has been serving a life sentence without mercy at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex since the early 90’s.
“The victim was found with hair follicles underneath her fingernails, which belonged presumably to her assailant the attacker,” explained Haught. “At the time those hair samples were compared using hair microscopy. It’s a science that we now know to be faulty in many regards. It involves physical comparison of one hair to another.”
This testing, Haught said, doesn’t actually involved DNA.
After years of incarceration for Kilmer, the FBI claimed it had falsely testified on the DNA evidence in the case in December of 2014, and offered to re-test so the West Virginia Innocence Project got involved.
“False evidence was presented to the judge, to the jury, from someone who is seen as an expert,” Beety said. “A scientific expert from the FBI.”
Now, Kilmer, his family, and people working on his case eagerly await the results, which could come any day.
Coming up on Tuesday, we'll show you why it’s so crucial that these results come back soon and why some clients who would be exonerated are still forced to plead guilty.
The West Virginia Innocence project has successfully had convictions overturned for several clients. You can read more about them at wvinnocenceproject.law.wvu.edu.