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
The first step is reviewing a convicted individual’s letter. If the person was convicted in Pennsylvania, says he had no involvement in the crime, and has exhausted all of his appeals, we can move the case to Stage 2.
Stage 2: Review
Next, we send out a detailed questionnaire for the convicted individual to complete. We also ask for copies of the appellate briefs and court opinions from the direct appeal (the appeal immediately following conviction).
A volunteer lawyer or law student will carefully examine the questionnaire and briefs to get a sense of the case. If the reviewer feels the case involves a plausible claim of innocence, we move the case forward to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Full Case Review
At Stage 3, the job of our law student interns is to get every piece of paper about the case we can: transcripts, expert reports, crime scene photos, appellate documents, witness statements, toxicology reports, and so on. If there is a possibility for DNA testing, the student will begin trying to locate that and ask it be preserved for possible testing.
The intern or volunteer lawyer will then thoroughly review the case, reading every document, and looking for potentially missing information. We will discuss the case in our staff meetings, and the intern or volunteer lawyer will ask for advice and direction from the legal staff.
If, after reviewing all of the materials we can get, we feel the case presents a strong innocence claim and there is a likelihood of discovering evidence that could prove the person’s innocence in court, we may move the case into Stage 4.
To determine which cases we take, we use a Case Review Committee – to provide an outside objective perspective on the cases. The panel is made up of experienced lawyers and 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: Investigation and Possible Litigation
Once the panel accepts a case for investigation, The Project staff investigator reviews the entire case file and creates an investigative plan. Since the Project’s interest is in revealing the truth, we start from a presumption of guilt, not innocence, and see where the facts take us. Our investigations involve speaking with every available witness from the trial, including those mentioned in pre-trial statements and motions, consulting with particular experts, and searching for physical evidence that could be subjected to modern scientific testing. 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.
At any point in the process, if the facts confirm an individual’s guilt, we will determine the case will not be pursued. But if the evidence confirms innocence, then we may be able to take on representation of the individual in court.