Innocence, Lost and Found

College internships generally offer good work experience, but in the best of cases, they are truly transformative. For Alexandria (Alex) Deitz, class of ’15, interning last summer with the Oregon Innocence Project radically changed her belief system.

“I am now anti-death penalty,” she says. “Prior to my internship, I believed that the courts were much more effective and accurate. But now that I have seen the many issues people face within the justice system, I do not believe that the death penalty achieves its mission in reaffirming the nation’s moral standards.”

The Oregon Innocence Project (OIP), a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners, is part of a national network of innocence projects staffed primarily by volunteer lawyers and law students. Since the first project was launched in 1989 at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, more than 1,500 people in the United States have been exonerated, although this is considered to be a small percentage of the innocent people still in prison. “These people have no one on their side,” Deitz says. “They hear about the Innocence Project and it’s a small glimmer of hope.”

It is widely estimated that the rate of wrongful convictions among violent felonies may be as high as 4 percent. “There are both statistically and anecdotally too many people in prison who were wrongly convicted,” says UO associate professor of geography Shaul Cohen, Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow and chair of the steering committee for the UO’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. “We need to make sure they have proper advocacy and are not forgotten. It’s a huge moral and ethical obligation on society to attend to those cases.”

The OIP, launched in April 2014, is a project of the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center. The project began taking requests for legal assistance this past fall and has received “dozens and dozens” of requests from prisoners, says Aliza Kaplan, OIP cofounder and associate professor of law at Lewis and Clark College. Each request starts with a letter, e-mail, or phone call from a prisoner. After that, the inmate fills out a 30-page questionnaire. Then comes the groundwork during which the staff decides if a case will make it to the next level. “We are looking seriously at a handful of cases,” Kaplan says, “but we haven’t officially taken any yet.”

After extensive research to determine overwhelming proof of innocence, attorneys use hard evidence to build their case, possibly including DNA; cyberanalysis; paint-chip analysis; bullet, tool, and tire marks; or footprints. Cases may be as many as 20 years old, and when reinvestigating them, OIP members look for problems such as eyewitness misidentification, faulty or invalid forensic science, false confessions, bad lawyering, and government misconduct. “So many wrongful convictions are built on emotional pleas by prosecutors who just want to get someone off the street,” Deitz says. “But just because the people had done crimes in the past or weren’t model citizens, that doesn’t mean they should be in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Deitz, a Dean’s Access Scholarship recipient who will graduate from the UO after just three years, describes herself as a “nerd” who loves to listen to Supreme Court oral arguments. While at the UO, she tutored student athletes in business, economics, and math; traveled to Russia on an exchange program; and interned with the OIP. “I don’t like to be bored,” she says, without a trace of irony.

A political science major, she also received the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship—a highly competitive Department of State scholarship—which enabled her to travel to Russia, where she attended political science classes at Saint Petersburg State University. “We had amazing debates with Russian political science students,” she says. “It broke down so many stereotypes.”

Her interest in the OIP began when she participated in the December 2013 Final Mile March, a repeat of the last mile of the 700-plus-mile Innocence March (from San Diego to the state capitol in Sacramento), which was organized by three lawyers from the California Innocence Project to raise awareness of 12 wrongly convicted prisoners. Deitz was amazed and changed by the experience. “There were moments throughout the march where I would listen to a friend or family member talk about the person they know and love being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit,” she says. “The weight in their voices made me realize how invaluable the Innocence Project is to so many families.”

In typical fashion, Deitz didn’t just march the final mile, absorb the moment, and go home. She took action. Having heard that Oregon, one of the last states in the union to create an Innocence Project, was finally getting one started, she called the program’s founders and said she wanted to help. She was one of the OIP’s first interns and the only one who wasn’t a law student.

The work wasn’t glamorous. “To be honest, I did a lot of typing,” she says. “But as I listened to Bobbin (S. Bobbin Singh, OIP executive director) and Professor Kaplan talk about the cases, I learned about the process. I got to see the brains behind the organization and how decisions were made.”

And during those two months, something happened.

“I will look at law completely differently,” says Deitz, who plans to study constitutional law and eventually enter politics. “I classify as a Republican, but being there opened my mind to the biases our judicial system holds—to problems that most people turn a blind eye to.

“Everyone who enters the courtroom comes in with biases they don’t even see in themselves,” she says. “Then, huge decisions are made that impact someone’s entire life. We need to spread the word about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is—how your mind plays tricks on you. We need to show people there are true issues we need to fix.”

Kaplan says she loves having student interns involved with the work. “They look at the facts, the cases, the stories with such fresh eyes,” she says. “My students have taught me so much, on purpose or by accident. They say, ‘What about this?’ and I say, ‘Go research that.’ Smart, committed students are such a benefit.”

As far as Deitz is concerned, Kaplan can’t say enough good things. “She’s a star,” she says, “a real go-getter. She is incredibly interested and eager to understand the issues and learn about the criminal justice system.” Deitz was equally inspired by the OIP directors. “It’s amazing to see their passion,” she says, “helping people they’ve never met and have no reason to be helping. It restores your faith in humanity.”

The California 12, Deitz notes, has now become the California 11, with one wrongly convicted prisoner set free. “That might not seem like much,” she says, “ but it’s an entire life, an entire family, that’s affected.

“These are real issues,” she adds. “It’s not just a bunch of kooky liberals trying to get people out of jail.”

—By Rosemary Howe Camozzi