Monday, February 05, 2001

Class aims to overturn conviction

Project seeks to identify innocent inmate

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Nikki Adcock and six other law students at the University of Kentucky hope to make their mark on our criminal justice system before they ever get to a courtroom.

        The seven are part of a program by the new Kentucky Innocence Project in which students work with public defenders, pouring over old homicide and sexual assault files. The goal is to free someone wrongly convicted.

        “Ideally, we'd all like to see results by the end of the semester. We want to get someone exonerated. But realistically, we'll start some good casework for the people who will follow us,” said Mr. Adcock, 24.

        Thanks to better technology such as new DNA tests that yields results from traces of skin, body fluid and hair, dozens of prison inmates have been exonerated in recent years.

        One of those, William Gregory of Louisville, served seven years in Kentucky prisons for two rapes he did not commit.

        Using DNA, interviews and other tools, students in Innocence Projects launched at several universities are revisiting old felony cases that may have closed with wrongful convictions.

        The Kentucky Innocence Project started this winter as a one-semester program, but it's scheduled to become a yearlong class in the fall, said Gordon Rahn, project coordinator and a Department of Public Advocacy policy analyst.

        Mr. Rahn sent information about the project to every prison in Kentucky and heard from more than 100 inmates who asked for help.

        The project considers inmates sentenced to at least 10 years in prison who are at least three years from parole and who can offer new evidence about their case.

        Each student is assigned two inmates, whose names are kept private.

        “I told the students we've got 14 cases to start with, and I don't know if any of them are innocent,” Mr. Rahn said. “But they all raise very good questions about the evidence against them. If we find one innocent person, the project is a success.”

        April Gatlin, 24, is fascinated by new procedures that detect DNA in tiny samples.

        Deoxyribonucleic acid offers the 21st century the same investigative breakthrough that fingerprints offered the 20th century.

        Some states now require that court officials preserve DNA evidence from crime scenes instead of destroying it once a defendant's appeals are finished.

        The Kentucky General Assembly is considering such a bill this winter.


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