In the middle of explaining why he founded the Montana Innocence Project, a nonprofit committed to exonerating innocent Montana inmates, state Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, stops himself mid-thought and poses a question: “Can you imagine spending years in jail for a crime you know—and the evidence shows—you didn’t commit? Can you just imagine that?”
So far, three Montanans—and at least 223 inmates nationwide—have faced exactly that situation, with each eventually being exonerated by DNA evidence. The Montana Innocence Project, which is based in Missoula, now becomes the first group dedicated to examining wrongful convictions in the state.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong and I feel strongly that, when it comes to people who end up in our prisons, we should be absolutely sure they belong there,” says Weinberg, who provided funding for the group through the Angora Ridge Foundation. “My interest is not to let guilty people out. But I have a strong interest in letting innocent people out.”
Weinberg outlines three main goals for the Montana Innocence Project: provide free investigative and legal assistance to Montanans with credible claims of innocence, identify laws that the state should pass to prevent future wrongful convictions, and to push the state to review all cases handled by Arnold Melnikoff, a former director of the State Crime Lab who has been discredited for incorrect testimony on forensic hair samples. Weinberg tapped Jessie McQuillan, a former Independent staff reporter, to serve as the group’s executive director, and assembled a board of directors that includes retired federal judge Bart Erickson and Dan Donovan, president of the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“We have put together a full slate of Montanans who have a long history of working with the criminal justice system in the state,” says McQuillan. “If there are innocent people convicted in Montana, this group will help exonerate them.”
McQuillan says a key to the Montana Innocence Project will be the work of the Innocence Clinic, a cooperative effort with the University of Montana led by Missoula attorney and teacher Larry Mansch. Students in the clinic will screen, investigate and litigate innocence claims under the supervision of the project’s staff and UM professors. Journalism students began work in September and McQuillan says law students will start in fall 2009.
“This is something I care deeply about,” says McQuillan. “Innocence projects play a vital role in rectifying major miscarriages of justice. It’s time we had one in Montana.”