Incoming Montana Innocence Project Director Keegan Flaherty is preparing for the day when the 5-year-old nonprofit frees its first client.
"It hasn't been a reality," she says. "Now it's a reality."
On April 15, Flaherty will replace Jessie McQuillan as the organization's executive director. Since founding the nonprofit in 2008, McQuillan has grown it into a powerhouse of advocacy for the wrongfully convicted, helping to establish the Innocence Clinic at the University of Montana School of Law and growing a statewide network of volunteers, many of whom provide free legal advice. She also forged ties with UM department heads, who send their most promising students to work as interns for the nonprofit.
"Jessie laid this foundation that is so strong," Flaherty says. "Now we get to start building on it."
Flaherty is optimistic that the Innocence Project will secure a victory in the coming year. The organization is actively litigating six cases, including one involving Richard Raugust, who was convicted in 1998 of murdering his best friend. As the Innocence Project notes, a jury convicted Raugust based largely on the testimony of one eyewitness, who later confessed to perpetrating the crime himself.
Two weeks ago, a Sanders County District Court judge heard Innocence Project attorneys argue that Raugust should receive a new trial.
Flaherty is equally excited about the newly secured support of political and legal heavyweights including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, retired U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and former Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier, all of whom have agreed to participate in an "Advocates for Innocence Advisory Council" on behalf of Innocence Project clients.
Flaherty joined the Innocence Project in August as director of operations, after working as a nonprofit consultant for ALPS Foundation Services in Missoula, where she focused largely on overseeing ALPS' legal philanthropy efforts. This winter, when McQuillan began suffering health problems related to an autoimmune disorder, Flaherty was asked to take over. In the coming year, Flaherty aims to double the Innocence Project's fundraising yield and hopefully celebrate at least one exoneration.
"It's really slow and it's costly," Flaherty says. "But in the end, someone who's been in prison for 17 years, like Richard, gets to walk free. And that's amazing."