The following editorial by Lawrence Hellman was published by NewsOK.com on September 13, 2014.
Oklahoma’s prison population is about 26,000. Some of the inmates are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
How do we know?
Throughout America, innocent people are being exonerated at an alarming rate on the basis of new evidence of innocence. A record 91 exonerations occurred in 2013. Since 1989, there have been more than 1,400 exonerations in America, including 27 in Oklahoma.
So we know that Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has made some mistakes. Not a lot of mistakes, but some serious ones. It is sobering to learn that eight of Oklahoma’s exonerees were on death row at the time of their release from prison.
It’s simply unrealistic to believe that all of the mistakes have been discovered. For one thing, many years can go by before the mistakes come to light. The average time between conviction and exoneration for the 27 Oklahoma cases that we know about is more than nine years. In addition, until recently, there was no organization in our state dedicated to reviewing inmates’ claims of innocence. Now there is.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law began operations in 2011. Since opening, the project has received more than 1,000 requests for assistance. Of course, not all of these claims of innocence are valid or capable of being established. With its small staff — supported entirely from private donations — it will take years to review the cases. Hundreds of inquiries still await an initial review.
So far, a few dozen cases have been identified that warrant further investigation. Legal actions seeking judicial relief have begun for two clients whose claims have merit. Pursuing these cases will be a slow and deliberate process — as it should be. More cases will be filed as resources allow.
How many innocent people are there in Oklahoma’s prisons? The courts will answer this question over the coming months and years.
Hellman is executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. The project’s benefit, “A Night for the Innocent,” is Sept. 26 at Will Rogers Theater. For information, go to http://innocence.okcu.edu/ or call (405) 208-7101.