Guilty until proven innocent: Overturning the District’s wrongful convictions

February 25, 2010

A plastic mail bin sits on Daniel Satin’s desk, nearly overflowing with a mix of thin white envelopes and manila envelopes so thick that a single stamp won’t suffice. Every month, he receives between 40 and 70 of these envelopes, their contents all asking for the same thing: a second chance.

Each envelope contains an application from a convicted felon or an inquiry from family members, all seeking help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions that have occurred in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Run out of American University’s Washington College of Law, MAIP connects area law schools and a network of pro bono attorneys to work toward freeing innocent prisoners in the region.

While MAIP has found many successes in Maryland and Virginia, fewer of the envelopes that cross Satin’s desk come from D.C. The organization has experienced difficulty in its outreach here, largely because the District does not have a prison for convicted felons. Inmates convicted of serious crimes are not housed locally, but are instead dispersed to prisons across the country. It’s difficult for prisoners to learn about MAIP while serving sentences as far away as Arizona.

As MAIP’s program assistant, Satin is the first person to read through the applications of prison inmates claiming their innocence. Satin, who graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism just last June, plays a crucial role in the early screening and investigation of potential cases.

MAIP’s current executive director, Shawn Armbrust (LAW ’04), held a position similar to Satin’s at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law. She was faced with a similarly daunting pile of unread cases and concern about how to know what to look for. On her first day she was given some advice: “The innocent ones just smell funny.”

Now, after Satin sniffs out a promising application, a screening committee, made up of pro bono attorneys, investigates cases to determine whether they should be pursued further by MAIP. The screening committees look primarily at two things: whether the inmate is possibly innocent, and whether it is possible to prove innocence through DNA evidence or factual investigation.

After the initial screening, there is no set timeline for how long it could take to overturn a wrongful conviction.

“The first case that I worked on took only four months to resolve,” Armbrust said. “But the second case that I was involved in took 11 years.”

The causes of case delays can vary greatly—anything from roadblocks in the investigation to trouble obtaining court documents. Satin said that it can occasionally take over a year just to obtain a trial transcript.

“Especially when dealing with older cases, getting legal documents can be very tough,” he said. “A lot of these guys have four or five different lawyers over the course of their incarceration, and documents just get lost. Unfortunately, our three jurisdictions don’t do a great job, some better than others, of maintaining records.”

The protracted nature of these cases is somewhat alleviated by the large network of pro bono attorneys and area law students who share the workload. Armbrust co-teaches a Georgetown Law Center class that relates to the Innocence Project, where students spend nearly a year investigating a single case. Armbrust also teams up with Georgetown Law professor Wallace Mlyniec for an “experiential learning class” that integrates seminars with real-life investigations and casework.

There was a time when these law students would travel to Lorton Correctional Complex in Virginia to interview inmates and work with them to secure their exonerations. Lorton held all of the District’s inmates convicted of a felony. But since its closing in 2001, D.C. inmates, previously imprisoned there, are shipped throughout the United States to serve out their sentences.

Lorton was the only prison for individuals convicted of a felony within the District. It opened in 1910, during the height of the Progressive era, as a remedy for the abuses and overcrowding common in Washington’s prisons and work-houses.

But by the 1970s, the facility became known for the same abuses and excesses that plagued the District’s earlier prison system. According to the Washington Post, in 1995, Lorton held 7,300 inmates, about 44 percent over its capacity.

Lorton soon became known as a training ground for career criminals. According to a Government Accounting Office report, published in 1987, just under 70 percent of inmates at Lorton had been convicted of a previous felony and spent time at the facility.

As the surrounding community became synonymous with the much-maligned prison, Congress passed a bill requiring the prison’s close by 2001. And so, on November 19, 2001, Lorton Correctional Complex closed its doors for good. The remaining prisoners were transferred to federal custody.

Without any District prisons to hold inmates, all individuals convicted of a felony are handed over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and sent to federal prisons across the country. While the BOP says it makes every effort to keep D.C. inmates in the region, Armbrust has heard anecdotally that they do their best to ensure that D.C. inmates are separated from one another as much as possible, in order to preempt violence.

BOP spokesperson Edmond Ross said there is no policy mandating that D.C. inmates are to be separated from one another, but “[the BOP does] monitor all inmates to make sure that the people that they need to be separated from are not placed in the same facility.”

“The Bureau of Prisons does its best to make sure that all inmates are placed within 500 miles of their homes,” Ross said. “That is not always possible because the facility needs to be of commensurate security level and have the correct programs for inmates.”

The scattered nature of the District’s inmates makes MAIP’s job much more difficult to accomplish. In Maryland and Virginia, when the Innocence Project accepts an inmate’s case, it usually see an increase in inquiries from other inmates in the prison, allowing MAIP to advertise its services cheaply and effectively through word of mouth

“If you’re in Western Correctional Institution in Maryland, everyone there is from Maryland,” Satin said. “It is very easy to learn about our services.”

With most of the District’s incarcerated located outside of MAIP’s jurisdiction, it is much more difficult to spread the word about the Innocence Project and what it does.

“There was an extremely low number of inquiries from the District,” Armbrust said. “Word of mouth was not getting the job done.”

In searching for another way to reach the District’s inmates, MAIP board member Gina Harps recalled the buses that would bring visitors to Lorton.

During the time Lorton was open, the L90, a Metro bus ran a route from downtown Washington to the prison. The route allowed inmates to remain tethered to their former lives, regularly bringing prisoners’ families and girlfriends to the facility.

If the inmates could not be reached directly, MAIP would have to reach out to the people who knew where all of D.C.’s prisoners were located: their families. Parents and spouses had every interest in seeing the wrongfully convicted exonerated, and would not hesitate to spread the word about MAIP’s work.

“Now that those buses don’t run down I-95 South anymore, we need to get in touch with [the families and girlfriends of the incarcerated],” Harps said.

Harps works in communications for the Department of Labor and is the only member of MAIP’s board without a legal background. She began volunteering with MAIP six years ago and has worked on everything from new logo development to marketing.

Working with Satin, Harps became one of the chief architects of the Innocence Project’s new effort to reach out to communities in the District, beginning in the summer of 2009.

The first areas MAIP chose to reach out to were the east of the river neighborhoods,  Wards 7 and 8. Satin began getting in touch with religious and political leaders, at one point sending letters to the approximately 75 members of the two wards’ various Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Satin and Harps travelled to ANC meetings and any other community gathering they could to speak about MAIP to all of those attendance.

“There are all these different community organizations out there, some are church related or some are school related,” Satin said. “But the type of people who could help us help [the wrongfully convicted] are the type of people who go to these meetings. And they’re the type of people who will make sure that their son or husband is sending us all the forms.”

While reaching out to the community, it became apparent that some area leaders were concerned about the potential for instilling false hope in the relatives of the incarcerated. Satin does his best to temper applicants’ expectations, remarking that MAIP is not “assuming the role of savior.” They are merely looking to give people a second chance.

While these community meetings were helping to spread the word, their impact was fairly limited, since MAIP was only one point on the agenda at most meetings.

This was part of the impetus behind the decision to hold MAIP’s first-ever legal clinic in November. On a cold and rainy Thursday, at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, a small dedicated number of people came to learn more about the Innocence Project. The bad weather depressed turnout, but not enough that the clinic could not go on.

In addition to staff members, members of MAIP’s Board of Directors, students from the Innocence Project at Catholic University of America, and Aaron Michael Howard, a man exonerated in 2008 after spending 18 years in prison as a result of a wrongful murder conviction, attended the clinic.

Howard spoke, not just because he had been recently exonerated, but because he was a native son. He was from Southeast D.C. and was wrongfully convicted in the District. When spreading the word about the legal clinic, Satin said he “ran into so many people who knew Mike.”

Howard was convicted, along with three other men, in 1990 for the murder of Bobby Parker and sentenced to 21 years to life. During the trial, only two of the prosecution’s 26 witnesses—a man with a history of psychiatric problems and his sister—placed Howard at the scene of the crime. Howard gave his court-appointed attorney his alibi and a list of witnesses who could verify it, but the attorney never even interviewed them.

In 2002, Howard filed a motion to reopen the investigation into his case and in 2006 he was assigned a new court-appointed lawyer, Zack Rosenburg. Rosenburg spent a year working on the case before bringing in MAIP through board member Seth Rosenthal.

“Zack and Ronetta [Johnson, a private investigator] spent about a year looking into the case,” Rosenthal said. “They had done a bunch of great work and contacted me because they were looking for some pro bono help.”

Howard’s new legal team, with the help of a private investigator, was able to obtain statements from witnesses supporting his original alibi and others who witnessed the crime and only saw three assailants. Perhaps most damning of all, they obtained a statement from the mother of the two witnesses against Howard, explaining that they were home with her at the time and could not have seen anything.

In light of this new evidence, the Assistant U.S. Attorney withdrew from the case claiming that he was no longer in a position where he could defend the jury’s original guilty verdict. As a result, Howard was offered a deal by prosecutors in which he would accept a voluntary manslaughter conviction in exchange for immediate release from custody.

“Instead of rolling the dice in court, where there could be no decision for months, Mike saw the offer and said, ‘I get to go home and see my family tomorrow,’” Rosenthal said.

Although he would still have a conviction on his record, Howard accepted the deal in order to get out of prison.

“It is not perfect because, although it allows me to maintain my innocence, it requires me to accept a conviction for a crime I did not commit,” Howard said in a written statement.

Howard says that having the conviction on his record has made it very difficult for him to find steady employment. Even with some of the troubles he has faced since being released from prison, Howard is very grateful to the work of MAIP.

“They really helped me,” he said in a phone interview.

“No,” his wife chimed in from the background, “They helped us.”

Which is why Howard agreed to talk at the event in November and at the 2009 MAIP Awards Luncheon.

“I have no problem trying to put my experience out there to help someone else,” he said.

After his talk, many in the crowd came up to talk to him. They congratulated him and told him that he was an inspiration. With Howard as an embodiment of what was possible, the attendees were able to talk to law students about their loved ones’ cases. The clinic ultimately led to nine new cases for  MAIP, including seven from the District.

“Everyone thanked us for showing up and being in the community,” Harps said. “I think many people were grateful that we were just there talking with them about their loved ones.”

MAIP, which is in its eleventh year of existence, is a member of the international Innocence Network, an organization with member groups in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, and 50 locations in the United States. The Network, according to Armbrust, provides an “informal support structure” that allows different Innocence Projects to learn from and assist one another.

In the past 18 months, the local branch has seen its share of successes, helping to exonerate five men.

“To put that in perspective in the first nine years of its existence, MAIP achieved just one exoneration,” MAIP President David Eppler wrote in the organization’s winter newsletter.

These recent victories speak not only to the continuing professionalization of the organization—which did not have any full-time staff until 2005—but also to the incredibly long time that these cases take to resolve. Nearly all of the most recent exonerations were initiated years before they reached a conclusion.

Inmates from the District currently account for 30 percent of MAIP’s cases that have made it past the screening stage, a marked increase from even a year ago.

MAIP already has plans underway for another legal clinic in the late spring, to be held in either Ward 4 or 5 in order to reach even more D.C. residents. Spread out across the country, from Arizona to Florida, Washington’s wrongfully imprisoned can only rely on their friends and family to learn of the opportunity for a second chance.

“I’ve been around a lot of people in the same shoes as me,” Howard said. “Some of them have life sentences and will never be coming home, but everyone deserves a second chance to prove their innocence.”

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Emily Lurie

Thanks so much for writing this article, Dan. I am writing my senior thesis on wrongful convictions and wish there was more awareness among the Georgetown community concerning these issues. This is a great way to start!


Daniel thanks for all your hard work and dedication. I too attended the meeting in SE back in November in hopes to helping my son who was 16 years old when wrongfully convicted to 41 years as a first time offender. Ryan is also housed in a prison in Arizona when his plea called for him to be housed closed to home. He has always been more than 500 miles away. He is also a native from Southeast Washington DC. I will continue to fight for his freedom. I am a contributor to the Innocence Project and will continue to pray that his story one day prevails. God Bless

Mary Ann Frost

I am searching for someone to help me with my husband’s wrongful conviction. Every brief and appeal we have done has been rubber stamped denied without being read. We are a case of first impression! It is a white collar crime. Every lawyer we have had has read our case and said it is one of the most unjust cases they have seen. We can’t seem to get anyone to listen that has power. My husband is 630 miles away from us. We have been happily married for twenty years and have four wonderful kids that desperately miss their dad. We are out of resources and on Government assistance to live. We have proof of my husbands innocence but no one will listen!

Mary Ann Frost

Maurice Hill

I’m with you Tonya! I don’t know if you remember me but I went to Davis Elementary with Ryan as well as Ron Brown Middle School. We were best friends at one point. The news of his conviction really messed me up as a kid. I never even was told what prison he was in or how to contact him. What prison is he in? I’d love to write him. I remember I used to come over all the time. You had a busted car you called Betsy. Ryan was a good kid. This has to be a mistake. I won’t stand for it. Let me know if I can help in any way. My prayers are with you