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Grant allows state to review wrongful convictions

LOUISVILLE — Kentucky is one of five states to receive a federal grant to help find and review cases of inmates who were wrongfully convicted of a crime.

The $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice allows the state to hire three attorneys and four investigators to scour the cases of nearly 3,500 men and women in a dozen state-run prisons, one forestry camp and possibly some county jails, as well as three private, for-profit prisons.

The state received the grant in September, and it will be administered by the Kentucky Innocence Project and used to review cases involving possible wrongful convictions in which DNA testing might prove innocence.

Only a few offenses — murder, manslaughter, rape and sodomy — are eligible for the team's review.

Ted Shouse, the grant super visor and the initiative's directing attorney, told The Courier-Journal in Louisville that the effort will have "an enormous impact."

Shouse, 41, also oversees the Innocence Project, an initiative separate from the one funded by the grant. Shouse will have half of his salary paid by the grant and half by the state Department of Public Advocacy, which developed the Innocence Project in 2001.

The Innocence Project will continue to investigate possible wrongful convictions with the help of an investigator and law students from Northern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky.

Studies suggest that 3 percent or more of prison inmates were wrongly convicted. Nationwide, there have been 234 post-conviction exonerations based on DNA evidence, including three in Kentucky.

DNA testing is expensive, and many people can't afford it, Shouse said.

"Our clients won't have to go through that," he said.

Under the federal grant, the 3,489 eligible prison inmates will soon receive invitations to attend meetings at their institutions.

At the meetings, the inmates will be asked to fill out a 21-page screening survey with questions such as "Were you with the victim(s) at the time of the crime?" "How did you become a suspect?" "Were there any witnesses to the crime?" "Did you give a statement or confession?" And: "Are you innocent?"

Tough standards

Two criteria will determine which cases get reviewed — usable DNA evidence must be available, and that evidence must hold out the prospect of making a difference in a new determination of guilt or innocence.

Only if those standards are met, and if subsequent DNA testing does not yield a compatible match with the person who was convicted, would the attorneys and investigators go to court seeking to overturn the conviction and sentence.

Shouse said the team will focus primarily on older cases, particularly those from before the mid-1980s, when DNA testing was rare.

Only four other states — Washington, Arizona, Virginia and Texas — received Justice Department grants.

Marguerite Thomas, the Department of Public Advocacy's post-conviction branch manager and director of the Kentucky Innocence Project, said that is largely because the federal government's criteria for applying were so strict.

Chris Cohron, commonwealth's attorney for Warren County and head of the state commonwealth's attorneys association, said that although prosecutors share the Innocence Project's concern about wrongful convictions, the reopening of cases should be done only "in very, very extreme circumstances."

"Evidence can be argued in many, many ways," Cohron said. "It's not something you can wade into lightly."