Advocates from across the country who help inmates try to prove their innocence met at a conference in Portland today. In Oregon, an innocence project is just getting off the ground.
Since 1989, when attorneys started using DNA evidence to exonerate inmates who had been convicted on the basis of less reliable forensic techniques, more than 1300 people have been exonerated after wrongful convictions, including at least eight documented cases in Oregon.
The Oregon Innocence Project, a collaboration between Lewis and Clark Law School and Metropolitan Public Defender, only formally launched this week. Aliza Kaplan, one of the founders, says the team has already received dozens of letters and emails from inmates and their families asking for help clearing their names.
“It’s hard right now because we’re not set up to help people yet. Unfortunately we have to say, please wait another month,” Kaplan says.
This summer, the project will begin to sift through the letters and look for viable cases. Often that means finding DNA evidence that can be tested, but that could be difficult. Oregon passed a law in 2011 that requires police to keep biological evidence of serious crimes and murders for 60 years. Before that, it was up to individual police departments to decide whether to preserve or destroy evidence after a person was convicted.
Kaplan says the Oregon Innocence Project hopes to get help from local police departments and prosecutors finding and preserving evidence. She says the project will also pursue cases in which DNA evidence is not available to establish innocence or guilt and where other issues, like false confessions or mistaken identification, may have led to a wrongful conviction.