By Sumaya Ali
Professor Jacqueline McMurtrie will present the 44th annual University Faculty Lecture on Thursday, Jan. 28 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
The Washington Innocence Project works to free innocent people who’ve been wrongly convicted and incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. Jacqueline McMurtie, professor emerita of law and founder of the nation’s third innocence organization, received the UW’s 2020 University Faculty Lecture Award for her outstanding work in this area.
In advance of her lecture, we asked McMurtrie to reflect on her decades of research and casework in the innocence movement.
What pivotal moments in your life motivated you to initiate The Washington Innocence Project?
One of them was seeing a documentary called “What Jennifer Saw.” It’s about Jennifer Thompson, a rape victim who believed with all her heart that Ronald Cotton had committed the crime against her. He was convicted and sent to jail on a life sentence, but was later exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.
When I was a public defender, I represented somebody on a murder charge. I had a great investigator, so we were able to show that he was in another state when the murder occurred. The charges were dismissed before trial. The system doesn’t always work the way that it should, and I knew that there had to be other instances of wrongful convictions in our state.
The most pivotal moment was when Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, was in town to do a presentation on the project. Barry said he would come to the law school to do another presentation on the condition that I would start the Washington Innocence Project at the UW. I had read about what they were doing, and at that point there were a number of exonerations off of death row in Chicago, so I was very interested in getting involved.
What does the government owe to people who have been wrongfully convicted, and how can communities support them?
First, an apology. Second, compensation. Part of the work that our organization has done, under the leadership of my colleague, Lara Zarowsky, has been to have a law passed in our state to compensate people who’ve been wrongly convicted. They receive $50,000 for each year of wrongful conviction, as well as some educational benefits and social services. But it’s hard to say that that’s enough. It’s something, but it’s very difficult for people to rebuild their lives after they come out of prison. Some of our clients have spent 17 years in prison, and they all come out deeply impacted by that experience. Lastly, we have the obligation to our exonerees to help them be successful when they return to the community.
Is it particularly difficult for lawyers and judges to admit mistakes? What could be done to make that easier and more accepted?
I think it’s hard for prosecutors to admit that they’ve made a mistake, and we have seen resistance to our motions to vacate convictions — even motions for post-conviction DNA testing. We’ve seen prosecutors, even after someone’s been exonerated, continue to claim that the person was guilty of the crime. However, we’ve had better reception with judges who have given our cases careful consideration and most often ruled in our client’s favor.
In terms of prosecutors, I think the county prosecuting attorney needs to acknowledge that our system is not perfect, people make mistakes, and that they have an obligation to assess and investigate whether or not that happened in any particular case. It’s also important to implement procedures in their own offices to reduce the number of wrongful convictions.
What do you think can be done to make our criminal justice system truly just?
We incarcerate far too many people and far too many people of color, and hand down sentences that are far longer than anybody needs to be in prison. My colleague, Lara Zarowsky, says that innocence work is the gateway drug to criminal justice reform, because it opens people’s eyes to injustices in the system.
For the issue of wrongful convictions, we know that there are a lot of safeguards that can be put into place to prevent wrongful convictions that currently aren’t in place in Washington state. Looking at eyewitness identifications and undertaking different ways of gathering that kind of evidence would guard against convictions based on mistaken witness identifications.
Another reform would be recording an interrogation from the beginning to the end, to provide an objective method of assessing whether or not the police had fed the suspect information during the course of the interrogation. It’s an incredibly simple and straightforward way to have an objective record of what happened in the interrogation room.
Finally, putting more resources into our criminal justice system to better fund public defenders so that they can zealously advocate for their clients. Law enforcement needs more resources so that they can be trained to employ investigation tactics that don’t lead to wrongful convictions and we should allocate more resources for prosecutors for the same reasons.
What do you want people to know about the Washington Innocence Project and the impact it has on people’s lives?
I would want them to be aware that wrongful convictions occur, and I think that over the course of my work, that has become more publicly known. When I started the organization in 1997, we were the third innocence organization to formally launch in the United States. The notion then was that very few people were in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Now there are stories of exonerations coming to light, especially in the media and in television shows like “Making a Murderer.” People are much more informed about the fact that this happens. It’s great to see new students coming into law school with that perspective already so they don’t need to be educated about the fact that wrongful convictions occur.
The other thing I would want people to think about is that a wrongful conviction has a deep impact on the wrongly convicted person’s entire family. We have clients who were in prison and missed their children growing up, weren’t able to go to their parent’s funeral, and missed a time in their life when other people were building careers and starting families. It’s really difficult when they come out of prison to readjust to a world that has changed so much since the time they went in.
What can people outside of the criminal justice system do to make a difference?
They can become educated about the work that is being done. There are some suggestions on our website about starting book clubs and engaging in different kinds of reflective education about the system. They can also become more aware of who the prosecuting attorney is in their county and what the prosecutor stands for, and what that office is undertaking in the way of supporting reforms. They can contact their legislators about laws that are being enacted related to wrongful-conviction compensation and recording interrogations, and to let their legislators know that they support that sort of work.
Learn more about the Washington Innocence Project.