DES MOINES, Iowa — Students at Drake University are stepping up to help those punished for crimes they didn’t commit.
Law students are partnering with the State Public Defender’s Office to start a wrongful convictions legal clinic.
Next semester, four students will help investigate and litigate innocence claims across Iowa.
Organizers say in the fall it will become a year-long internship opportunity. It’s a chance to help families find justice for their loved ones wrongly put behind bars, but it’s a long process.
“A wrongful conviction generally takes six to ten years to bring it to resolution," Erica Nichols Cook, Director of the State Public Defender's Wrongful Conviction Division, told Local 5. "Most of these cases, when they are 20, 30, 40 years old, it takes a long time when we start and with the application and gather documents, interview witnesses, and then initiate litigation.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2,705 people have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated across the country since 1989.
Those people served a combined total of 24,609 years, averaging 9.1 years lost behind bars per person.
In Iowa, 16 people have been exonerated, losing a total of 81.23 years behind bars. That averages out to about 5.1 years per person.
The last person to be exonerated was Kyle Weldon in 2017.
He was exonerated after former Des Moines Police Officer Tyson Teut was caught planting meth in Weldon’s case file that lead to his conviction.
Cook said not all cases are that straightforward. Some go back decades, which present their own problems when it comes to DNA evidence.
“Most of the time the evidence is very degraded because it hasn’t been stored properly or just because of age, " Cook said. "In one case in Muscatine, nobody can find it, nobody can tell us what happened to it. So we’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the evidence."
If you know someone who claims to be wrongfully convicted, go to the Midwest Innocence Project’s website.