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82 – These Top Legal Non-Profits Are Freeing the Innocent & Reforming the Criminal Justice System

82 – These Top Legal Non-Profits Are Freeing the Innocent & Reforming the Criminal Justice System
Tricia Rojo Bushnell is the Executive Director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people convicted of crimes they did not commit. Megan Crane is Co-Director at MacArthur Justice Center, an organization that fights cases to right individual wrongs, and confront racial and social inequality. Together, they have partnered to demand effective and sustainable reform of the criminal justice system. In this episode, they discuss encouraging, new trends in the judicial system, recent wins their organizations have landed, and what the future holds for the American mass incarceration crisis.

Show Notes

[01:03] Welcome to Tricia Rojo Bushnell and Megan Crane!

[01:18] Tricia, let’s start with you! Give us a little bit about your background and The Midwest Innocence Project, the clinic you’re currently working on.

[02:20] Tricia, you are an attorney as well, correct?

[02:59] Megan Crane, what are you up to with the MacArthur Justice Center?

[04:39] The litigation you’re discussing… how does it differ from a normal 6500 Motion that has to be filed for relief from judgment?

[05:54] If there is clear misconduct in their case, many exonerees will file a civil suit against the state, county, police department, etc. if it’s clear there was misconduct throughout the process.

[06:47] Tricia, tell us about this partnership between The Midwest Innocence Project and MacArthur Justice Center and how it helps get people who are wrongfully convicted out of prison.

[08:34] You’re covering five states and the majority is coming out of a single city… what are the trends you’re seeing that are coming out of St. Louis?

[09:12] There have been historic problems with law enforcement in St. Louis… it hasn’t had the same type of reckoning that cities like Chicago and Detroit have had with their police departments and prosecutors’ offices.

[12:44] Is your focus more on prevention of wrongful conviction, or getting the wrongfully convicted released from prison, or both?

[15:54] Michigan does have some great innocence organizations, but who’s advocating the legislature for change?

[16:55] I love that you’re finding these problems in cases and bringing it to legislators’ attentions, urging them to change laws. And it sounds like you’re getting some amazing traction with the legislature and governor in Kansas who are creating and passing these protective laws. Are you finding they’re receptive to your requests?

[18:47] Have you been successful in keeping the corruption of jail house informants to a minimum?

[20:16] Have you had all of those requests passed in any one state?

[20:54] Megan, what are some initiatives you and MacArthur are working on to fix these problems?

[21:39] The Missouri public defender system is run by people trying to do the right thing who haven’t received the bare minimum amount of money from the state to adequately represent clients.

[23:40] People become public defenders because they have a passion for it, but they’re fighting with their hands tied behind their back.

[24:56] The Bail Project is doing incredible work across the nation as a critical tool to prevent needless incarceration oftentimes caused by racial and economic disparities.

[25:31] The lawsuit that you’re talking about — are you gaining traction on that currently?

[26:40] Oftentimes people facing charges are poor, uneducated, and are handed an attorney whose case history is hard to verify… there’s no Google star-rating. In all the cases we’ve looked at, an attorney has been disbarred or reprimanded after wrongful convictions where people have served years behind bars. There’s no system of accountability. What can these people do to protect themselves?

[28:23] Tricia is one of the 2% of American lawyers who are Latina. When you create a public defender’s association or community of lawyers that is predominantly upper-middle class and white, you create an environment of poor communication and cultural barriers that keep lawyers from properly hearing their clients.

[29:15] We’re at a point where we have to be reckoning with the role systemic racism plays in both prosecution and defense attorneys unconsciously improperly representing people of color.

[32:47] It’s very difficult to hold corrupt people within the judicial system accountable because of qualified immunity and the fact that they keep moving and ascending higher in the ranks.

[34:53] MacArthur focuses on the legal aspect of what happens when someone who is wrongfully imprisoned sues the bad actors that led to their conviction. Most of the time the bad actors are insulated and protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity. The good news is that there is bipartisan support against qualified immunity and there are jurisdictions across the country looking at ending it.

[37:35] Tricia, you had something exciting happen at your office last week. Can you take us through what happened with your client, Olin Pete Coones?

[40:07] How much time did it take from the time you heard of Pete’s case to the time he got out of prison?

[43:44] Tricia, I was going through the website and saw another client of yours, Michael Politte. Another fourteen-year-old who was wrongly convicted of his mother’s murder and has since spent his life in prison… You’re doing amazing work — if any of our audience want to help, how can they?

[44:12] To help, visit the Midwest Innocence Project website, and you can learn about multiple ways to help. They will soon be releasing their annual report which contains information you can send legislators, clients, prosecutors, asking for them to look into creating conviction integrity units, provide funding for video conferencing for disabled or deaf persons to communicate with their attorneys, amongst many other initiatives.

[45:55] You can also support MacArthur by visiting the MacArthur Justice Center website and going on their wrongful conviction page. Read about their projects and case… because the MacArthur Justice Center and MIP have a partnership, donations made to MIP will also support Macarthur.

[47:25] The Innocence Network will also inform you about innocence organizations within your region and see briefs that are filed, current issues being dealt with, annual conferences, etc.

[47:54] One of the best ways to help is also raise awareness about cases via social media.

[48:10] It’s important to raise awareness because anybody could become a juror, be charged with something, be a witness, or be in some type of position to wield influence over a case.

[48:58] It feels like this issue is “out there” more, and there’s a ground swell of awareness and movement starting to take off. Do you get the same sense?

[50:40] Thank you to Tricia and Megan for being here, it meant a lot!

[51:25] Please donate to these causes if you feel moved by any of these stories and share this episode with those who need to see it. Thank you for watching Open Mike — until next time!

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