The newly formed Oklahoma Innocence Project, headed by well-known innocence attorney Tiffany Murphy, is working with legislators to pass the Oklahoma Innocence Collaboration Act. A House subcommittee passed the bill 9-0 last month, and it now is heading to Appropriations and Budgets Committee. The bill appears to set up a mandated structure where the Oklahoma Innocence Project could send cases it felt involved problematic scientific analysis for review to the forensic labs at University of Central Oklahoma. The university department would analyze the case and write a report, and then the case would be sent to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, which would review the findings and take action if necessary.
I wonder how this system will work in practice. The structure seems to take the case out of the adversarial system. Instead of relying on their own experts to evaluate the case, and then present those findings in court, the case will be reviewed by state officials (at the Oklahoma Innocence Project’s referral), who, as anyone in this field knows, often suffer from tunnel vision or are loathe to admit a mistake. The attacks by prosecutors last week against the North Carolina Innocence Commission are just one recent example of this problem.
But the following quote from the bill’s sponsor caught my attention:
“We’re the only state that doesn’t allow people that are incarcerated when new evidence comes along to use that evidence to prove their innocence.”
Can this actually be true? Oklahoma doesn’t have a “motion for new trial” rule or other legal mechanism for convicted inmates to present new evidence of innocence to the courts? Oklahoma has had 10 DNA exonerations, so is the ability to present new evidence of innocence limited just to DNA cases? If so, I suppose that would explain why the only option would be to rely on the state officials to vet claims of actual innocence outside the adversarial courtroom process. And that would mean that our friends at the Oklahoma Innocence Project like Tiffany and founder Lawrence Hellman, who have done such an amazing job raising funds and quickly getting off the ground, will have a steeper uphill battle in coming years than most of us face. I would imagine findings ways to get cases with new evidence back in court (by legislation or constitutional challenges) would have to be high on the agenda. Thank goodness there is finally a strong organization in Oklahoma that can start to push for necessary changes.