A couple of weeks ago, I attended a fundraiser for the new Mississippi chapter of the Innocence Project. I was there to push my November reason piece on Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne (who merited a mention from keynote speaker, author John Grisham). The state has been in dire need of its own chapter of the project for a long time. Until now, innocence claims from Parchman Penitentiary went to an understaffed Louisiana Innocence Project chapter in New Orleans.
One of the other speakers at the event was Cedric Willis, one of just two men to thus far have been exonerated in Mississippi with the help of the attorneys in New Orleans. Willis was convicted of a murder and armed robbery 13 years ago, and served 12 years in Parchman, one of the more hellish prisons in the country (and also where Cory Maye now resides). There were problems with the case against Willis from the start, but prosecutors pressed on, despite conceding later that they had their own doubts about the case.
The city of Jackson has thus far balked at offering Willis any sort of compensation, so in July he filed a $36 million lawsuit for his wrongful conviction and incarceration.
Mississippi has no law in place to compensate the wrongfully convicted, but lawmakers there had probably better start thinking about one. When I first spoke with Tucker Carrington, the director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, he said he was a bit overwhelmed at what he was looking at. The state's criminal justice system is in bad shape. In some cases, DA's offices have disposed of entire case files (one reason Willis was released was that the faulty photo lineup used to implicate him had been destroyed). There are other people in Parchman for whom there is no record of a trial. Still others weren't aware of their right to appeal their convictions.
And this is all before the business with Dr. Hayne hit Mississippi. I've been told that in the last month, criminal defense attorneys all over the state have filed motions for hearings to assess Dr. Hayne's credibility. The state's supreme court just granted one such hearing. The defendant in that case is represented by Edwin Pittman, a former chief justice of the state supreme court and a former Mississippi state attorney general. I'll have more updates on the Dr. Hayne story over the next few weeks.
The good news is that the Innocence Project event had a big turnout. Mississippi native Grisham and fellow author Scott Turrow seem committed to keeping it well-funded and high-profile.
There are likely to be quite a few more cases like Cedric Willis' over the next few years.