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Mountaineers Are Always Free? Identifying, Remedying, and Preventing Wrongful Convictions in West Virginia

Award Information

Award #
15PBJA-22-GG-03917-WRNG
Location
Congressional District
Status
Open
Funding First Awarded
2022
Total funding (to date)
$359,208

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $359,208)

Since 2012, West Virginia Innocence Project’s (WVIP) mission has been identifying the wrongfully convicted through application review and correcting injustice through investigation and litigation. Embedded in West Virginia University College of Law’s Clinical Law Program, WVIP also educates future prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and post-conviction lawyers about the causes of wrongful convictions and how to properly address innocence issues post-conviction. WVIP aims to prevent wrongful convictions, ensure that the innocent are not prosecuted, and protect the public by identifying the guilty. 

    WVIP is the only innocence organization serving West Virginia, runs on an exceptionally lean budget, and is staffed by a program director, a donation-funded staff attorney, third-year law students, and undergraduate student volunteers. Due to resource limitations, WVIP has a two-year backlog of potential innocence cases awaiting screening. Additionally, budget constraints prevent maximum efficiency which could be achieved by purchasing official court documents (rather than awaiting former counsels’ files), hiring professional investigators, and consulting subject-matter experts to explore potential wrongful conviction cases.

    Nonetheless, WVIP has a record of success. In the past two years, it helped exonerate Charles Jason Lively, convicted using bad arson science, and Nathaniel Barnett, convicted solely on the false confession of a co-defendant. In the Barnett case, a CODIS search conducted during innocence litigation shed light on the truth by identifying a known sexual predator from DNA left at the crime scene. Further, in 2020, WVIP successfully advised the state legislature regarding adoption of the “junk science provision,” an expansion of the post-conviction statute permitting people incarcerated under debunked or substantially changed science to relitigate those claims. Although the provision is now law, potentially innocent people remain incarcerated without recourse because WVIP simply lacks the financial and staff resources to handle a large influx of newly eligible cases.

    With the requested funding, WVIP’s strategic plan secures the employment of the current staff attorney for two years and enables the hiring of a screening specialist who, along with the staff attorney, will provide application review and assessment of risk for wrongful convictions. Additionally, WVIP will maximize efficiency by purchasing case files, hiring professional investigators, and seeking expert consultations. Most importantly, WVIP’s plan enables a meaningful review of untold numbers of post-conviction applications, identifies major causes of wrongful convictions, and educates stakeholders to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the future.

Date Created: September 27, 2022