Arizona Justice Project turns attention to next high-profile case

November 21, 2012

The Arizona Justice Project is one of more than 50 agencies in the United States that has been working to free wrongfully convicted felons from prison. For more than a decade it’s set dozens of people free. The project recently helped an Arizona man accused of murder, and is now working on exonerating another.

Arizona Justice Project Team Arizona Justice Project Team (Photo courtesy of Arizona Justice Project)

NADINE ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: They review evidence, re-interview witnesses, and if they’re lucky, they’ll get their hands on existing DNA evidence to prove the innocence of people serving time in prison. That’s what the Arizona Justice Project has been doing since 1998.

LARRY HAMMOND: When we formed the Project, we had nothing.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Larry Hammond is an attorney with Osborne Maledon. He’s the Arizona Justice Project. 

HAMMOND: We had no staff, we had to money, we had no real organization, but we had an idea and it was time to implement the idea.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: At the time, the Arizona Justice Project was the fifth of it’s kind in the country. Today, it receives an average of 300 letters a year from inmates or families seeking help. The project accepts pro-bono less than one percent.

KATIE PUZAUSKAS: We start out by trying to put together the trial and appellate file, which could take years because parts of the file end up in different places. 

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Katie Puzauskas is one of four staff members at the Arizona Justice Project.

PUZAUSKAS: One of our criteria in order for us to take a case is that an inmate can no longer be entitled to counsel at public expense ... so, they have to have exhausted all of their criminal appeals. We literally are the last recourse for many of these people who need help.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: If the Arizona Justice Project sounds familiar, that’s because it was responsible for this month’s release of 77-year-old Bill Macumber. The father of three was serving two life sentences for killing a young couple in 1963. The Project argued that Macumber deserved a new trial to prove his innocence. But the state, realizing the evidence it used against him years ago was destroyed, decided to cut a deal and release him. In the last two years, Arizona Justice Project has freed eight people from prison and it’s currently working on 45 additional cases. Most notable is the Louis Taylor arson case. Taylor was accused of setting the December 1970 Tucson Pioneer Hotel fire. He’s serving multiple life sentences for the death of 28 people.

ACT: PUZAUSKAS: That’s a case where we’re looking at the fire science and trying to determine whether the Pioneer Hotel fire was even an arson to begin with. We don’t think it was. We don’t think a crime was ever committed.

Bill Macumber Bill Macumber released on November 8. 2012 (Photo courtesy of Arizona Justice Project)

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: But critics of these efforts argue inmates will often claim they’re innocent, even when they’re not … and some may try to game the system to delay punishment, especially in death penalty cases. Ultimately, these critics say if a jury finds someone guilty, that should be the final say. But retired Maricopa Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein says he’s learned over the years that the work of innocence projects isn’t to release the guilty, but to give innocent people a second chance.

RON REINSTEIN: There some cases that really have slipped through the cracks either for problems in forensics science or problems with eye witness identification or false confessions  and the innocence projects around the country and the Arizona Justice Project has kind of picked up that gap in the system

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Most innocence projects only take cases that hinge on new DNA evidence. But, Arizona’s takes a wider approach. It uses new forms of defense like battered person syndrome, and changes in medicine and forensic evidence to bolster its arguments. Since the innocence projects system began in the 1990s, there have been an estimated 300 DNA exonerations. For Larry Hammond the numbers prove there’s much work to be done.   

HAMMOND: The fact that you have to do each one of these cases against terrible odds that seemly at not point do people want to stop and say do we have a systemic problems that nee to be addressed… I am discouraged.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Today, there at least one innocence or justice project in each state, and more than 60 around the world.

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