Imagine that in the next few minutes you receive a knock on your door, a phone call or email and a stranger accuses you of a crime. You know immediately the information is false, but you reel at the mere insinuation of wrongdoing on your part.
What begins as an unnerving conversation rapidly descends into a nightmarish path leading to criminal charges filed against you. Shock envelops you as you are arrested and booked into a jail cell before the day ends. “How,” you ask, “could this have happened?”
The question haunts you as you sit in prison for years. Then, one day, comes an unsuspecting query from a stranger, announcing help is on the way.
That is the initial goal behind OKJ2 – Oklahoma Journalists for Justice: to shine a spotlight on the cases of men and women wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit who are unfairly imprisoned in Oklahoma.
If you’re wondering if that really happens in this state, consider this:
- Jeffrey Todd Pierce served almost 15 years in prison before being exonerated in 2001 in the case of an Oklahoma City woman who had been sexually assaulted in 1986.
- Sedrick Courtney spent 16 years behind bars after being convicted in 1996 of breaking into a Tulsa woman’s apartment and robbing her at gunpoint. He was set free in 2012 after police rediscovered “missing evidence” and DNA tests showed no match between Courtney and the crime scene.
- Ronald Williamson and Greg Wilhoit were convicted in 1988 of raping and murdering an Ada woman in 1982, but both were set free 11 years later after they were found to be innocent. Williamson’s release came just five days before he was scheduled to be executed. Wilhoit had been serving a life sentence.
More than 26,000 men and women are imprisoned in Oklahoma correctional facilities. Most are certainly guilty of their crimes, but how many dozens potentially are wrongly convicted, based on past injustices and statistical averages?
OKJ2 cannot release anyone directly from prison. The organization, however, can use its investigative journalism skills to uncover new evidence in old legal cases that raise serious questions, if not actual proof, about a prisoner’s innocence. This then becomes the catalyst to convince the courts to take a fresh look at a convict’s charges.
It is our hope that the truth will then finally set the wrongfully imprisoned free.
OKJ2 was inspired by The Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. That program began in 1999 when undergraduate journalism students at the school outside Chicago began looking into the claims of a man on Illinois’ death row that he was innocent of a murder. The class unearthed new evidence in the case, causing the courts to re-examine the case. The man eventually was set free. The idea that an innocent man was about to be put to death for a crime he didn’t commit so troubled the governor and Illinois Legislature that Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011. Northwestern University students continue to examine new criminal cases every term (www.medilljusticeproject.org), raising questions about other inmates in Illinois.
One other college journalism program, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is dedicated to examining potentially wrongful convictions. The program uses journalistic methods as a primary tool by “examining reams of court documents and police records; reconstructing the crime scene and timeline; and interviewing or re-interviewing witnesses.” The institute is operated by a small staff of professional journalists who are not faculty members of the university. A few students are used as research assistants for the institute’s investigations. (www.brandeis.edu/investigate/innocence-project/).
The Brandeis University project also is affiliated with the Innocence Project, an international network of legal aid clinics and law schools that use students and attorneys to examine prisoners’ claims of being wrongfully incarcerated. The Innocence Project began in 1992 as a nonprofit legal clinic associated with the Yeshiva University law school in New York City. It is “dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice” (www.innocenceproject.org).
The Oklahoma City University School of Law started a version of the program in Oklahoma in August 2011. Law students work with attorneys and the program director, pursuing “only cases in which there is credible evidence of factual innocence.” (www.innocence.okcu.edu).
OKJ2 is not attempting to duplicate any of these existing programs but rather complement their ongoing efforts with the common goal of exposing wrongful convictions so that innocent prisoners can be set free. We believe there is much work to be done here and around the nation, and OKJ2 is committed to doing its part in Oklahoma.
We hope that you personally never need our services, but if you know a prisoner who needs help or you would like to get involved in helping other inmates, please contact us and join the fight for justice.