We were not entirely surprised when the Wisconsin Innocence Project’s press release landed on our desks on July 12, 2011. It announced the formation of an advisory board to “steer the work” of the Wisconsin Innocence Project in advocating for wrongly convicted individuals. Members of this advisory board include current and retired prosecutors, ranking police investigators and administrators, and defense attorneys.
This was not a complete surprise because we had heard from inmates represented by the Wisconsin Innocence Project who have experienced sudden reversals of course in their cases. One, for example, needs DNA testing of some key evidence long suppressed by the prosecutor, and had been waiting to learn how much it would cost. Suddenly, the inmate is told that a whole new crop of students will begin reinvestigating the case from scratch – just about the time the prosecutor became a member of the advisory board. It seems plain the direction in which this inmate’s case is being “steered.”
Some of the new advisory board members make a reasonable person wonder what the co-founders of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Keith Findley and John Pray, were smoking when they chose them. Retired Dane County Assistant District Attorney John Norsetter, for example, successfully prosecuted Ralph Armstrong in 1980 for the murder of Charise Kamps. Fourteen years later, when Norsetter got a call from a Texas woman who reported that Armstrong’s brother, Steve, had confessed to the killing, he did what any prosecutor would do: ">he preserved his win by not reporting the new information. In 2006, in the same case, Norsetter flagrantly and deliberately violated a court order by sending key DNA evidence for testing that resulted in the destruction of the evidence. Wisconsin finally threw in the towel in Armstrong’s case in 2010.
And how did Norsetter’s colleague, retired Dane County Deputy District Attorney Judy Schwaemle, get on the board? In 1992, she convinced a jury that Anthony Hicks, the only black man in a white apartment complex, raped his neighbor. Two pubic hairs from the assailant were offered as scientific proof. Sentencing was delayed while Schwaemle trotted out two jailhouse snitches to claim that Hicks solicited them to kill the victim and his attorney. The judge eventually decided the witnesses would lie on their own mothers if it got them leniency, but he sentenced Hicks to 19 years in prison. Five years later, DNA excluded Hicks as the donor of the pubic hair. Schwaemle reissued the rape charges and kept Hicks in custody until she had to fish or cut bait. She cut bait but said the evidence “does not proclaim him innocent. It merely introduces reasonable doubt.'' Her continuing refusal to apologize or admit error was the subject of editorials in the Madison Capital Times and in the Isthmus newspapers in 2002.
Cases investigated, prosecuted and/or defended by members of this advisory board are bound to be presented to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and in each instance, a conflict of interest exists. How are the defense attorneys going to advise regarding, say, case selection criteria, on cases involving their own ineffective assistance? Do you think they’ll want to see that inmate’s conviction reversed, knowing that a malpractice lawsuit against them is probable? How about police investigators and administrators? How likely are they to “steer the work” out the door when police misconduct in their agency was key to the conviction? Are prosecutors—including retired prosecutors—going to let their big wins of days gone by be overturned? Or will they close the doors on the innocent in order to keep the win/loss ratio that was the keystone of their professional identity? Such blatant conflicts of interest can never achieve the “full and balanced consideration of the issues” the Wisconsin Innocence Project says it seeks.
In the end, we must ask why? Why is the Wisconsin Innocence Project ignoring conflicts of interest that would put private practitioners in peril of losing their licenses? And why is the Wisconsin Innocence Project so willing to throw innocent inmates under the bus?