The timing struck me as something surreal, watching speakers from the University of Colorado Korey Wise Innocence Project talk about wrongful convictions on the eve of Good Friday and Easter.

More than two thousand years after the world’s most famously unjust trial, innocent men and women continue to find themselves on the same harrowing path.

I’d meant to write about the Korey Wise Innocence Project last year after serendipitously running into my former law school professor, Ann England, at a small mountain-town restaurant. Something or another came up and I wrote a different column. 

Mario Nicolais

This week I’d planned to write a column about the peril posed by domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic, but quickly found out another writer, the always outstanding Tina Griego, had penned an exceptional article on the topic just a few weeks ago.

And then, locked in at home, I attended a virtual CU Law Talks presentation Thursday night. Any other year, I would have been in church to celebrate the last lesson of Christ and Maundy Thursday.

Timing is everything.

Tragically, time is also what has been taken from the people the Korey Wise Innocence Project aids.

England teaches in the criminal law clinic at CU. I spent a full year working in that clinic, learning from her and the now retired Pat Furman. In the years after I graduated, England played a critical role bringing the Colorado Innocence Project into the law school in 2010.

Five years later, the program received a substantial gift from one of the country’s most prominent wrongfully convicted defendants. Korey Wise, one the Central Park Five convicted for a 1989 rape and assault they did not commit, donated a portion of the subsequent settlement money he received in 2014 to the ongoing CU efforts.

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Maybe more important than the money, Wise lent his name and celebrity – Netflix turned the Central Park Five story into the heart-wrenching four-part series “When They See Us” last year – to a program dedicated to helping people he understands better than anyone else. For them, the hope delivered by his journey is akin to hearing about a man rising from the dead.

The number of people affected is not minuscule. Empirical evidence suggests 3 to 5% of defendants convicted of capital rape or murder are factually innocent and wrongly convicted. That is a jaw-dropping figure. Potentially one in 20 people facing punishment that could include the death penalty didn’t do the crimes for which they were convicted.

Of those later exonerated by DNA analysis, multiple factors often led to their wrongful convictions. In 70% of those cases, misidentification by eyewitnesses contributed to conviction. Flawed forensic evidence occurred in 45% of cases and false “confessions” played a role in 29% of those trials.

Most scenarios aren’t as egregious as the one that landed Wise in prison. Even well-intentioned prosecutors understand that the system is not perfect. Stories like that of Jennifer Thompson, a rape survivor and criminal justice advocate who misidentified her attacker, demonstrate just how fragile that system can be. But they also highlight the resilience of people like Ronald Cotton Jr., Thompson’s co-author and the man her testimony helped to wrongfully convict.

Since coming to CU Law School, the Korey Wise Innocence Project has recruited a full-time program director, Anne-Marie Moyes, and screened thousands of requests from Colorado inmates requesting help. 

The program only accepts those who claim to be factually innocent – legal arguments such as self-defense fall outside their purview – and currently have five cases either in or close to litigation. The organization also works to educate policy makers and advocates for reform legislation to prevent future wrongful convictions.

While nothing can return the 13 years of life lost by Korey Wise, his example, aided by the dedicated professionals at my law school alma mater, will help other innocents rise from what appeared to be hopeless circumstances. And maybe just in time.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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