Q: What is the process for the PA Innocence Project to review and take on a case?
A: There is a four stage screening process that can lead to a petition for a new trial. Below are descriptions of each step:
Stage 1: Screening for Innocence
We first review your letter that details what you were convicted of in PA, what the witnesses claim happened, whether there was a trial or you pled guilty/no contest (this includes plea deals), and where you are in your appeals process.
If our initial investigation leads us to believe you may have been involved, we close the case and go no further. If our review shows that you had no involvement in the crime and your case meets the initial criteria (a claim of factual evidence was convicted in Pennsylvania, and is beyond the direct appeal stage), we move forward.
Stage 2: Review
Next, we send you a detailed questionnaire for you to fill out. We ask that you also send a copy of the appellate brief and court opinions from your direct appeal.
A volunteer lawyer or law student will carefully examine a case’s entire history, delving into the criminal investigation, the trial, and the appellate process. Throughout this review, students work with our staff determine whether we will accept your case. When a case conveys a strong claim of innocence, student interns will present it to our Board of Directors in Stage 3.
Stage 3: Presenting to the Panel
Our Board of Directors panel is made up of experienced lawyers that always includes at least one former prosecutor. This panel decides if the matter will move forward for investigation and potential litigation. We hold these reviews approximately three times per year, presenting an average of three cases per review.
Stage 4: More Research
Once the panel accepts a case for investigation, The Project staff investigator reviews the entire case file and creates a research plan. Since the Project’s interest is in revealing the truth, our investigations involve speaking with every available witness from the trial, including those mentioned in pre-trial statements and motions, consulting with particular experts, uncovering missing documents, and other materials long lost. The staff investigator often travels across the state seeking to speak with witnesses, family members, or others who may have knowledge of the crime. Whenever possible, our law students take part in the investigations.
Law student interns and investigators thoroughly investigate the case and try to develop a litigation strategy for the eventual exoneration of the inmate. At any point in the process, we may determine that the case will not be pursued, and you will be promptly notified.
Only when the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has agreed to pursue litigation on behalf of the inmate does legal representation begin. Up to that point, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project will be investigating the claim only, and will not represent the inmate. The inmate must continue to pursue any existing post-conviction petitions on his/her own.
Petition for a New Trial
If facts uncovered throughout our investigation reveal new evidence that support an innocence claim, the next step in the process is to prepare a petition for a new trial. Most often, this is in PA state court using an act called the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Similar to the investigation process, we encourage our law students to take part in the litigation processes. Law students commonly write the first draft of the PCRA and a staff attorney perfects the filing.
Before we file the PCRA petition in court, we invite a firm to co-counsel with us, pro bono. Once the PCRA petition is filed, Project lawyers and pro bono counsel share the responsibility of moving the case forward as quickly as possible, including meeting with prosecutors to discuss the merits of the case.