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UVa's Innocence Project having a busy -- and possibly banner -- year

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Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 9:21 pm | Updated: 1:49 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

So far, 2012 has been “particularly insane” for the lawyers and law students who make up the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic, according to Deirdre Enright, the clinic’s director of investigation.

The Innocence Project has received a great deal of media attention this year for its work to exonerate Eric Weakley, one of the so-called Culpeper Three. Weakley, alongside Michael Hash and Jason Kloby, was arrested in May 2000 in connection with the 1996 shooting death of church organist Thelma Scroggins.

The project is also working to clear the name of a Mineral man who was wrongly convicted of rape based on an accusation that was later recanted, and his own false confession.

For the five-year-old Innocence Project, the recent successes have provided a national profile and drawn new interest from donors, the legal community and from prisoners who hope to convince people that their convictions are worth a second look.

“I strongly support the Innocence Project,” said Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding, who has worked closely with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in investigating Hash’s case.

“I think we all should be for the work of the Innocence Project at UVa [and on the national level]. The justice system needs to pay much, much more attention to what the Innocence Project has found in its research,” Harding said, adding that there is “much work to be done” among both law enforcement and court officials to stop wrongful convictions.

“Eric is the classic false confession,” said Matthew Engle, the clinic’s legal director. Engle said that Hash’s cousin pointed the police toward Weakley, citing him as a witness. Though Weakley said he did not have any information about Scroggins’ death, Engle said that the police pressured him until Weakley falsely confessed to being involved in the crime.

“They completely coached him on all the details of the crime,” Engle said. “Even when he’s broken down and starting to give a confession, the information is wrong.”

For example, Weakley told investigators on camera that Scroggins was shot once in the head and once in the chest. In fact, Scroggins was actually shot four times in the head.

Weakley ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and served nearly seven years for the crime. Kloby was tried and acquitted.

Hash, who was tried and found guilty of capital murder, served 12 years of his life sentence before being released from prison on bond last month. He will appear in Culpeper County Circuit Court on Monday for a review hearing of his case.

Pam Hash, Hash’s mother, worked tirelessly alongside the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to see her son freed from prison. In late February, Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk overturned Hash’s conviction, citing extreme police and prosecutorial misconduct by Culpeper authorities in investigating and trying the case.

“The thing about good people is they don’t know cops can lie their [expletive] off,” Enright said, adding that Hash’s conviction is due in part to a false confession from a known jailhouse informant.

“To us, it seems palpably absurd, but jurors buy it every time,” she said. According to Engle and Enright, jailhouse informants are becoming increasingly common witnesses, and are a major cause of wrongful convictions.

“It seems like now it’s such an accepted practice that no one is worried about [resulting jailhouse violence],” Enright said.

Engle said that informants seldom get charged with perjury.

“[The informant] is not going back to jail no matter what happens with Michael Hash. That’s how the system works,” he said.

Enright agreed, adding, “if you don’t have snitches, you have to work.” Some prosecuting attorneys rely on faulty witnesses as an easy way to get a conviction, she said.

Enright started the Innocence Project Clinic five years ago at the request of then-law school Dean John Jeffries. Engle joined the staff three years later.

The Innocence Project started as a group of student volunteers with no supervision, Enright said. Now, students can apply for one of the 12 seats in the Innocence Project Clinic, a yearlong, eight-credit course, or the volunteer group, which generally has 50 to 75 volunteers at any given time.

In 2009, the Charles Lawrence Keith & Clara Miller Foundation provided the Innocence Project Clinic with a matching grant, meaning that the foundation would match any money raised by the Innocence Project, up to $15,000. The clinic received a $15,000 anonymous donation, which the foundation matched, for a total of $30,000.

Enright said that the Innocence Project Clinic used these funds to hire three investigators to research the cases. Tracking down witnesses is one of the most time-consuming aspects of the project’s workload, she explained, adding that the investigators are not UVa employees, but rather independent contractors.

Currently, the Innocence Project Clinic is working on five active cases, and is involved in preliminary investigations for 15 others. Three file cabinets in the clinic’s office hold the records of more than 250 inmates awaiting investigation.

“Every week we get at least 20 to 25 letters from inmates asking us for help,” Engle said, adding that about half of those cases do not qualify for review.

The Innocence Project Clinic only takes on cases that were tried in Virginia, and for which all related appeals have been concluded. The clinic only accepts clients who are arguing factual innocence rather than technical innocence.

Wrongful convictions can happen for a number of reasons, Enright explained, but said that false confessions and faulty witnesses are significant sources of such convictions.

Though the clinic has an impressive caseload, Engle said that it is difficult to actually close the cases. He cited the clinic’s work with Edgar Coker, a Mineral man accused of rape at 15, as an example.

Coker pleaded guilty to rape and breaking and entering on the advice of his lawyer in 2007. Shortly thereafter, his then-14-year-old accuser took back her accusation, but the damage was already done. Coker remains listed as a violent sex offender, and is struggling to find a job, Enright said.

Though there is no longer a conflict between Coker and the young woman he is accused of raping, Engle said that the case is still at least two years away from being concluded, thanks to red tape surrounding the court system.

“Several of our cases have been going on for years. Unfortunately, that’s the norm,” Enright said.

“It’s taken five years to try and undo what happened in 20 minutes in court,” Engle agreed. He said that he is often surprised by the lack of argumentation in the courtroom.

“All that’s happening here is processing. It’s depressing, but you can see how easily mistakes are made and not caught,” he said.

Both Engle and Enright said that working with the next generation of lawyers is one of the most rewarding parts of their job. Enright said she is confident some of her students will go on to participate in pro bono work throughout their law careers.

Despite the long hours and challenging caseload, Enright described her work at the Innocence Project Clinic as “a dream job.” She said that though she believes her clients to be innocent, the process of proving their innocence is stressful.

“It means you feel like you can never do enough for them,” Engle said. “Seeing Michael Hash walk out of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail was hugely rewarding,” he added.

The Innocence Project Clinic is currently working on a documentary of Weakley’s experience in hopes of encouraging Gov. Bob McDonnell to grant him clemency.

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