The Montana Innocence Project – a nonprofit dedicated to seeking the exoneration of prisoners it believes are innocent – has a new leader.
Attorney Lisa Mecklenberg Jackson has been hired as the organization’s new executive director.
Most recently, Jackson was the director of Montana's State Law Library, and while she said she doesn’t have experience as a criminal defense attorney, the issue of access to legal resources has always been important to her.
“That’s always been one of my missions, making sure people have access to to the tools to attain justice,” she said.
Jackson replaces Joe Bischof, who joined the Innocence Project in September 2015.
“He resigned and moved on to other pursuits,” said Dan Weinberg, co-founder of the Innocence Project and president of its board of directors.
Bischof could not be reached for comment Friday.
Weinberg said he’s known Jackson since he was a state senator in the mid-2000s. At the time, she was the legislative attorney for state Legislative Services Division.
“I think she’s an ideal person to lead the organization,” he said.
Jackson started her new job Monday, and after just three days departed for this year’s Innocence Network conference in San Antonio, which brings together exoneration organizations from around the world.
“I’m just trying to understand the whole layout, to understand how all of these Innocence Projects work,” Jackson said.
In addition to representatives from other organizations, Jackson said the conference also includes people who have been exonerated talking about their experiences.
“These people are just, they’re amazing. They all just want to be out and give back and it’s really incredible,” Jackson said.
Her previous job with the State Law Library reinforced the importance of every person having the best possible access to resources for seeking justice.
“We were always very busy with pro se folks who are doing their own lawsuits,” she said. “We would help people find legal resources and help them with all of the forms.”
Pro se defendants represent themselves.
As the Innocence Project's executive director, Jackson will work with the board to support legal director Larry Mansch and the pro bono attorneys who work for the organization, including taking a lead role in fundraising, Weinberg said.
Three students from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, where Innocence Project's office is located, also help out, and Toby Cook will join the organization as a full-time staff attorney this summer.
Since its founding in 2008, the Innocence Project has received more than 600 requests from inmates asking it to take their cases. The organization has accepted fewer than a dozen to litigate.
It's coming off a productive 2015 that included Richard Raugust's murder conviction being overturned and his release after 18 years in prison.
In August, the Montana Supreme Court overturned convictions in two other Innocence Project-backed cases, granting Robert Wilkes and Cody Marble new trials.
In 2010, Wilkes was convicted of shaking his 3-month-old baby to death. Marble was convicted of raping a boy in juvenile detention in 2002.
In addition to continuing to work on these and other cases, the Innocence Project also hosts seminars for prosecutors' offices and law enforcement agencies around the state to help improve evidence-gathering methods to ensure wrongful convictions don’t happen to begin with.