In Allegheny County, eight people have been exonerated since 1990, sharing more than 125 years wrongfully imprisoned.
Liz DeLosa, managing attorney of the new Pittsburgh chapter of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said most people aren’t aware of how the exonerated are treated in this state.
“The really sad part is that those who are guilty, parolees who have actually committed the crime, get more support reintegrating into society, than those who are convicted-innocent,” DeLosa said.
The Philadelphia-based Innocence Project opened their Pittsburgh chapter last week, citing a caseload hefty enough to warrant a presence in the region. Currently, DeLosa said there are about 20 cases in various stages of investigation or litigation in western Pennsylvania.
“It’s confining for the folks in Philly to litigate out here in western PA,” DeLosa said. “And also, there’s an enthusiasm here, people are really excited about the project.”
The organization learns of new cases from families of convicted people or from the incarcerated themselves. Attorneys and law students then review files for what they call potential “red flags of innocence.”
“So many people have heard of all the DNA exonerations, but there are other types of cases: fault ID, bad forensic lab work, false confession cases, bad lawyering, misconduct by police and prosecutors,” DeLosa said.
Cases undergo stage three reviews, during which attorneys and law students sift through court documents, all transcripts and anything potentially related to the case. The students then produce a report detailing why or why not the convicted could be innocent.
From there, new evidence must be presented within 60 days. DeLosa said the timeline is actually very quick in the commonwealth.
“It forces us to kind of piecemeal our litigation,” DeLosa said.
Getting back into court can be difficult, as well, according to Kelsey Ayers, a third-year Duquesne law student working with the project. She said the convicted individuals have often exhausted appeals and money by the time the Pennsylvania Innocence Project gets involved.
“They’ve run out of other options,” Ayers said. “So now you have to be creative with finding the exception, or the way back in, or just how you can get this back in front of a judge and be like, ‘look, this person is innocent, here’s how we can prove it.’”
In most cases, the exonerated in Pennsylvania receive no compensation or reimbursement for time spent in prison. DeLosa recalled the difficulties faced by Crystal Weimer, who was recently exonerated in Fayette County.
“(Weimer) was dropped off on the side of the road,” DeLosa said. “She was still in her prison uniform. She had all of the belongings that she owned in the world in a plastic bag. No money, no apartment. That’s how we treated the wrongfully convicted and it’s devastating.”
Currently in committee, PA Senate Bill 1274 would provide an opportunity for the wrongfully convicted to receive compensation. It recommends that the individual receive $50,000 for reach year of wrongful incarceration. According to the bill's history, action hasn't been taken since May.
The bill does not include support programs for the exonerated, such as housing assistance or job training, but it is endorsed by the Innocence Project. DeLosa said she’s been overwhelmed so far at the support of the Pittsburgh chapter and expects organizations will lend their resources. Wrongful Conviction Day is Oct. 4.