They will be the first cases presented to the North Dakota Committee for the Innocence Project since it was formed last winter, said Adam Martin, chairman of the committee in Fargo. The committee will be tasked with deciding which cases the Great North Innocence Project will accept.
“I think I would rather leave 10 people at liberty who are guilty than an innocent person from life imprisonment,” said Martin, also founder of the F5 project, a non-profit organization that works to help ex-incarcerated people make the transition back. the society. “I mean, this is awful. That’s how you know the system doesn’t work, if we’re sending innocent people to prison.”
The Great North Innocence Project, based in Minneapolis, is a chapter of a national organization that works to overturn the convictions of people who have been unjustly convicted.
According to Sara Jones, executive director of the Great North Innocence Project, from 2% to 10% of people incarcerated in the USA are found not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted.
“So we know from history that these cases exist,” she said. “Let’s say that North Dakota has perhaps 3,000 people at most in prison. Let’s say that 5% of those people are innocent. That is a very significant number.”
The Great North Innocence Project was founded in 2001, and took cases in North Dakota before, most notably the case of Richard LaFuente, who was convicted of the murder of a police officer in the Spirit Lake Reserve in 1983. The Great North Innocence Project took over his case in 2003 and, in 2014, the decision to deny LaFuente’s parole was reversed . He was released from prison after 28 years.
After receiving a grant last year, Jones said the organization was able to expand more formally to the Dakotas. The North Dakota committee is comprised of local law enforcement representatives, federal offices, state law firms, North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, ACLU, Altru Health, UND and Legislative.
Since the committee was formed, the Great North Innocence Project has started accepting applications. The barrier to accepting a case is high, Jones said. First of all, she said, the person must be innocent – not only innocent from a technical point of view, but innocent in the sense that he had nothing to do with the crime for which he was found guilty. Second, they must have some kind of evidence to prove that they are innocent.
The North Dakota Committee meets quarterly, and the next meeting in April will be the second time the group has met, said Martin. He believes that it is at that time that the cases will be presented to the commission for the first time.
Jones said the process is time-consuming, but she believes the work is important.
“As a lawyer, but also only as a person, the criminal justice system is expected to be as fair as possible,” she said. “I think one of the worst mistakes our system can make is to condemn an innocent person. That means that an innocent person has his freedom taken away for no good reason.”