Despite a series of successes in the past year, the staff at the Montana Innocence Project know they have a lot of work still ahead of them. The nonprofit organization, established in 2008, focuses on exonerating prisoners in the state who it believes are innocent of the crimes they have been convicted of.
Each week, the organization receives three or four letters from inmates asking for their case to be reviewed. Of the more than 600 cases the group has screened since its founding, legal director Larry Mansch said less than a dozen have been accepted to be litigated. The final step in choosing to take a client is putting their information in front of a screening committee, which is made of members of the board of directors.
“The big difference for us is actual innocence not a technicality for not guilty,” said Frank Sweeney, a Whitefish attorney and one of the founding board members.
Another aspect of their work that many people don’t always think about, executive director Joe Bischof said, is the flip side of what happens when an innocent person is put in prison.
“That means there’s an actual guilty person still out there, possibly committing more crimes,” he said.
The Montana Innocence Project got its start in 2008, when Jessie McQuillan, then a reporter for the Missoula Independent, became more and more interested in the case of Barry Beach.
She began to talk with Dan Weinberg, a Beach supporter who saw the convicted murderer’s exoneration efforts as a sign that there were many cases in the state that needed to be reexamined. At the time, Mansch said Montana was one of the few states without an Innocence Project.
“He thought Barry Beach gets all of the publicity but surely there’s other people who are behind bars who are innocent,” Mansch said.
Beach’s case has brought more attention to the subject of exoneration in recent years, Mansch said, adding that the Montana Innocence Project has worked on the case in a secondary, supporting role.
The organization is almost entirely funded by individuals who believe in the Montana Innocence Project’s mission, with some additional money from grants. Much of what they are able to accomplish, Bischof said, is due to the lawyers, law students, medical staff and others who volunteer their time for the cause.
The Montana Innocence Project’s court wins in 2015 include a decision in July from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Bill Watson, convicted in 2006 of raping a teenage girl. In the decision, the court found that scientific advancements that mean previously untestable or inconclusive DNA must now be seen as newly-discovered evidence and not subject to previous time limits.
“The science of DNA and the ability to test in detail has improved. It is now considered new evidence because you couldn’t test it before,” Sweeney said.
Last August, the Montana Innocence Project had another pair of victories when the Montana Supreme Court granted new trials in separate cases, sending them back to Missoula district court. The cases were those of Robert Wilkes, convicted in 2010 of shaking his 3-month-old baby to death, and Cody Marble, who was convicted in 2002 of raping a boy in juvenile detention.
The Innocence Project believed Wilkes received inadequate representation by his public defender, and that the conviction had relied heavily on testimony from then-associate state medical examiner Dr. Thomas Bennett. The Montana Attorney General’s Office ended Bennett’s appointment last July after questions arose about his autopsies of children.
In Marble’s case, the Montana Innocence Project found that the accuser had repeatedly recanted his story, although he later reneged on the recantation.
Finally, in October, a judge in Sanders County District Court overturned the conviction of another of the organization’s clients, Richard Raugust. Raugust originally had been sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for the murder of a Trout Creek man. The Innocence Project won in court by claiming, among other issues, that evidence of innocence and witness testimony had been withheld at the first trial.
Apart from exonerating those already convicted, the Montana Innocence Project also is working with prosecutor’s offices and law enforcement agencies across the state to help ensure that wrongful convictions don’t happen to begin with, including trying to improve how eyewitness testimony is collected.
The Montana Innocence Project also is planning to work to make changes at the legislative level, including a push for statewide requirements to preserve DNA evidence for a set period of time.
“Ideally for us, that would be the life or incarceration time for a defendant,” Sweeney said. “Regardless of how convinced we are at the time, the science evolves.”
Mansch and Bischof are the only two full-time employees of the Montana Innocence Project. At the start of October 2015, the organization lost one of its employees in a climbing accident when the body of 26-year-old Spencer Veysey, who was vacationing in Colorado, was found on the east face of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Veysey, who graduated from the University of Montana's School of Journalism in 2012, had been working with the Montana Innocence Project since he was a student, eventually serving as the organization’s on-staff investigator.
Mansch said he was a tireless worker with a great passion for the work he did for the Innocence Project.
“At a memorial service in Missoula, I said the first word those people who are released should have come out of their mouths is ‘Thank God for Spencer Veysey,’ ” he said.
Without him, the organization has been without a dedicated investigator, an issue Mansch said they are hoping to be able to address this year.
The project also is continuing to work on the cases of Richard Burkhart, who in 2002 was convicted of killing a man with a ball-peen hammer in Great Falls. The Innocence Project has found witnesses who never were contacted by law enforcement and never testified in the case.
It also hopes to secure a new trial for Katie Garding of Stevensville, sentenced in 2011 for hitting and killing Bronson Parsons with her car in East Missoula in 2008.
Sweeney said they do not believe her car was involved, as he claims it was not damaged. They also question the testimony of Garding’s boyfriend, who Sweeney said had an incentive to cooperate in her conviction as a "snitch" in a deal with prosecutors.
Mansch said they also are in the process of evaluating new cases to take up. The Innocence Project has a five-tier system for evaluation, with about 15 cases currently in the middle stages where claims of innocence and potential new information and evidence are examined.
“We are dedicated to carrying on the fight,” Mansch said.
Students in UM’s School of Social Work have put together a guide of programs and other information for people released from jail who are working to reintegrate into society in Missoula, Mansch said. This year, the Montana Innocence Project is hoping to develop similar guides for other large cities across the state.
Bischof said 2015 was a record year for exonerations in the U.S., as a University of Michigan Law School study showed 149 cases where a person was declared innocent or had their conviction overturned.
Sweeney said the rate has become so prevalent that some communities in Texas, the state with the most exonerations last year, have set up special conviction integrity units within prosecutors' offices solely to look into claims of innocence.
Bischof said if national trends hold true for Montana, the Innocence Project is likely only on the “tip of the iceberg” in the number of cases where the innocent are imprisoned in our state.