The exposure of wrongful convictions began in 1989, and it upended the idea that guilty verdicts were always trustworthy. When there’s a wrongful conviction, what has to happen to get a court to exonerate someone?
On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and show host David Harris talked to Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
She says its enormously difficult to establish innocence – even when the case hinged on bad science or faulty evidence – after a court declares someone guilty.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID HARRIS: What sorts of errors are you looking for in the convictions?
MARISSA BOYERS BLUESTINE: We have almost a laundry list of errors that can go wrong in the trial. Could the eyewitness have misidentified the defendant? Could the defendant have given the confession that was false? Was there forensic science error? Could some of the witnesses who testified have lied, either for benefit of because they wanted to? Was there error from the prosecution or from the police? So we know that the system has error all sprinkled throughout it. It's our job to try to figure out where it happened in a particular case.
HARRIS: And when you say the system has error throughout it, what we're talking about is a systems problem. It's not people who are doing bad things, it's the system occasionally not working.
BOYERS BLUESTINE: That's absolutely right. It's not that police and prosecutors want to get it wrong. They don't. They want to get it right, but because it's a system built upon humans and where humans power it, there's going to be flaws. What we have to do to fix this is to understand where those flaws come in and try to help train ourselves against them so they're not so prevalent.
HARRIS: You had a really complicated case in Pittsburgh, the case of Greg Brown. Tell me about him.
BOYERS BLUESTINE: Greg Brown was convicted of setting a fire in his home on Valentine's Day in 1995. And yet we believe that this is a case where it was not arson, that it was actually an accidental fire. But in putting out the fire, three firefighters died and then lost their lives tragically. Greg was prosecuted for that. He was convicted of it, and in about 10 years afterwards, we find out that witnesses had an undisclosed promise from the federal government that they would receive up to $15,000 reward money for their testimony. When we exposed that, Greg has granted a new trial, and he is still awaiting trial in federal court in Pittsburgh.
HARRIS: It sounds like what you have to do is basically totally reinvestigate the case from the beginning.
BOYERS BLUESTINE: We absolutely investigate from the beginning. We leave no witness unspoken to. We talk to every witness who would talk to us, police officers, prosecutors, informants. It doesn't matter – co-defendants. We'll talk to everybody. We don't avoid talking to a witness, because we don't like what they might say. We don't avoid asking particular questions. We want to know the facts.
HARRIS: You said that you go forward with a presumption of guilt actually, not a presumption of innocence. Can you explain why what that means?
BOYERS BLUESTINE: We want to make sure that the cases we take are people who are actually innocent. If we go in with a belief of innocence and trying to "prove innocence," then we probably will get what we're looking for. We want to know what the facts are. So we don't try to gin the outcome. We don't try to get a witness to say something we think would be helpful. We just want to know what they have to say, because everything we do is based on the facts – not about what we want the facts to be.
HARRIS: How long can the process take? Are we talking a few months? Several years?
BOYERS BLUESTINE: It can be anywhere in between. In between a few weeks, months or years, but most likely years. These cases take years just to get the evidence to be able to show that this person is innocent. And even once we're in court, then it can be used more of litigation. With Greg Brown's case, the case that we have out of Pittsburgh, we started the case in 2010. We won the new trial in 2014, and even today in 2017 he's still awaiting trial. These are very long, drawn out cases. We don't have a magic wand. It takes very intensive work over years and years.
HARRIS: So you've been doing this in Pennsylvania since 2009. In that time, there have been eight exonerations through your organization's work. When you're successful, what kind of life can the newly proven innocent person expect?
BOYERS BLUESTINE: Because we don't have a compensation statute, it really is up to the individual and their support system to be able to provide a new life for them. They don't even get an expungement. The arrest will still show up on their criminal record, so we have to work to expunge the petition. But beyond that – getting them a job and housing and health care and mental health counseling and family reunification counseling and all that – that falls on us, because we don't just open the door and let them go. They're part of our lives now. We're part of theirs. So we have to do everything we can to help people with a successful re-entry. And sometimes that works in a phenomenal way. Our client Jean, he and his wife just had their second child together. He's in middle management at a really terrific job. I have another client who has two pairs of pants and runs from couch to couch to be able to try to have a place to live. So it really can go the whole gamut.
HARRIS: Marissa Boyers Bluestine is the litigation director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Thanks for making time for us.
BOYERS BLUESTINE: Thank you.
Criminal Injustice is recorded at the studios of 90.5 WESA. Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.