Innocence and the justice system


Sherman Townsend was released from Hennepin County jail on Oct. 2, 2007, after spending 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It took the confession of the guilty man and the help of law students from the University of Minnesota to secure his release.

Each school year, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a branch of the national nonprofit organization, uses law students from the University and Hamline University School of Law to gather new evidence and act as attorneys for prisoners who, after thorough research, they feel are wrongly convicted.

Inmates seeking post-conviction relief often rely on pro bono legal representation by organizations like the Innocence Project, which act as last resorts for prisoners sentenced to crimes they claim they did not commit.

From the organization’s perspective, Townsend’s case is not a complete success story. The shoddy police work and poor legal defense that led to his incarceration are illustrations of how unfair the criminal justice system can be, Innocence Project Managing Attorney Julie Jonas said.

Wrongful convictions often stem from eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, inept defense counsel, improper forensic science or overzealous police work, Jonas said.

The federal government is spending millions of dollars each year to review and investigate old cases; DNA testing was not considered reliable until about 1999.

The Innocence Project of Minnesota was chosen by the U.S. Department of Justice in September to spearhead an $860,000 project aimed at identifying falsely imprisoned inmates by investigating crimes with new methods of DNA testing.

However, additional efforts should be made to reform the justice system, which is often the source of the problem, University third-year law student Hans Anderson said.

“Our criminal justice system is pretty messed up.”

Wrong race, wrong time

At his apartment in Dinkytown, 32-year-old David Anthony Jones gathered the necessary tools. Duct tape. Drawstring pants. A utility knife.

It was Aug. 10, 1997, and Jones was drunk and wanted to rape his neighbor, according to his testimony in court. He crossed the street shortly before 1:30 a.m., cut a first-floor window screen and entered her house. He made his way up the stairs and stepped into the woman’s dark room. Jones did not know the woman’s boyfriend was with her in bed.

The woman woke to a hand covering her mouth and a man straddling her waist. When she began to struggle, her boyfriend woke up, and Jones dropped the roll of duct tape next to the bed, court documents show. He wrapped his hands around both of their throats. After a brief struggle, Jones dashed down the stairs and out the back door.

Nervous and drunk, Jones watched Minneapolis police arrive from his apartment window, according to his testimony.

The woman and her boyfriend described their attacker as black, heavy-set and wearing a black shirt and blue shorts, maybe jeans. The officer put the description out on the police scanner, and a short time later 47-year-old Sherman Townsend was in handcuffs in the back of a police car, wearing a blue T-shirt and light colored green shorts.

Townsend fit the woman’s description as a large, black male. He also had an extensive criminal record. He had been arrested for breaking into homes in the Dinkytown area before, and had five burglary charges on his record. He served time in the St. Cloud prison facility for three of them.

Police brought Townsend back to the victim’s house and stood him in front of the squad car’s spotlight. They asked the victims to identify their assailant, but neither could do it definitively. Then, Jones walked out of his apartment to speak with police and told them that on his way back from the bars a man wearing a black T-shirt and bluish shorts had come out from the woman’s house and knocked him over. When police showed Townsend to Jones, Jones confirmed that Townsend was the man.

“They took me out of the squad car under all of these spotlights, and this guy [Jones] identified me,” Townsend said. “I said, ‘I’ve never seen Mr. Jones.’ “

Although he would later testify that that “I can’t even remember what this man looked like,” Jones’ identification was used in court, and because of his previous convictions, the court sentenced Townsend to 20 years in prison for the crime.

The Innocence Project Clinic

University Law School students register for second-year and third-year classes through a lottery system. Of 12 choices, third-year law student Hans Anderson ranked the Innocence Project Clinic as his first preference and was drawn as one of only four law students this academic year to work alongside Jonas in the clinic.

The Innocence Project of Minnesota was established in 2002 with help from Tanya Dugree, a former student in Hamline’s law program who now runs a private practice in Florida.

It is a yearlong class that teaches more than just theory; it gives students actual experience as an attorney. Law clinics permit students to practice law under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

A former Ramsey County public defender, Jonas, 44, joined the Innocence Project in 2003 and splits her time between the project and teaching the clinic at the University. Without the help of the clinics, the Innocence Project could not function, Jonas said.

For the first six to seven weeks of the clinic, Jonas said, the students learn background information on the causes of wrongful convictions.

After that, students gather court records, review evidence, and in many cases, interview suspects that police discounted or did not find during investigations. If the students build a strong case, they draft memos or petition for post-conviction relief hearings.

“We really act a lot as a private investigator would,” Anderson said.

Around 300 inmates from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota send letters to the Innocence Project every year, although less than 10 percent have enough validity to warrant investigation, Jonas said.

Anderson is currently working on a case that’s moving to the Minnesota Supreme Court. A debunked forensic technique called comparative bullet lead analysis put Robert Gassler, whose case Anderson has been researching, in prison on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in 1992.

The process, used by the FBI from the 1960s until 2004, matched bullets possessed by suspects to ones found in crime scenes based on the bullet’s chemical makeup.

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the tests were “unreliable and potentially misleading,” and the FBI discontinued its use. As a result, many inmates are seeking post-conviction relief.

“I was able to write an amicus brief to the Minnesota Supreme Court,” Anderson said, “which is a huge opportunity, especially for a law student.”

Anderson’s amicus curiae brief urged the Supreme Court to allow his client another hearing based on his potentially flawed incarceration.

Anderson, who also works as a volunteer attorney at the Ramsey County Public Defender’s office, said without organizations like the Innocence Project, many wrongly convicted inmates would be out of luck.

“Look at the 200 and however many convictions that have been proven wrong through the efforts of innocence clinics,” Anderson said. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of people that have been wrongfully convicted, and there are millions of reasons for it.”

The Innocence Project usually reviews cases of mistaken identity that can be proved with additional or new methods of DNA testing, and prisoners must make a claim of actual innocence, Jonas said.

“Not just that their trial lawyer wasn’t good or a judge wasn’t fair to them,” Jonas said. “They actually have to be saying ‘I’m innocent.’ “

Although the Innocence Project Clinic was first established at Hamline, the University’s clinic is more efficient because it runs a full year, as opposed to Hamline’s semester-long clinic, Jonas said.

Because it takes so long to dig into the cases, students in the semester-long clinic have only started to make progress by the time the semester ends, Jonas said.

The organization strongly prefers cases in which DNA evidence is available, and it will not accept cases from North Dakota or South Dakota unless there is DNA evidence.

“I’ve found that it’s real difficult to require my students to drive to North Dakota or South Dakota for investigations,” she said.

Prisoners usually have to have at least three years left on their sentence in order for the Innocence Project to take their case.

Because cases can take years to develop, they can change hands between law students several times before any ground is made. This was the case for Sherman Townsend.

He had already served 10 years in prison for the two counts of first-degree burglary when Jones approached him in the chow line of Moose Lake prison in 2007.

Jones was incarcerated for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2001 and will remain in prison until 2012. Townsend recognized Jones as the man that had identified him to police.

“Weren’t you convicted of a burglary over in southeast Minneapolis?” Jones asked, according to Townsend. “I need to talk to you later. Meet me out in the yard.”

Jones told Townsend that his conscious was eating at him, and that he wanted to clear Townsend’s name by admitting to the crime. He even agreed to testify in court because the five-year statute of limitations for burglary had expired on the case.

Townsend was skeptical; he had been let down before. Two women from Hamline had met with him a few times in 2002 and had taken a serious interest in his case. Despite numerous appeals, they failed to bring about progress.

“Somehow, God blessed me with peace of mind throughout the whole process,” Townsend said. “I couldn’t tell you where it came from.”

Ten years, gone

Tanya Dugree and Jessica McKinney, student directors of the Hamline Innocence Project Clinic in 2002, agreed that there was a good chance that Townsend was innocent.

When investigators checked the house for prints, they only found one partial print, which did not match Townsend’s. Investigators neglected to test the roll of duct tape for DNA.

Though he had prior convictions for burglary in that same neighborhood, the crime itself didn’t fit in with Townsend’s previous arrests.

For one, none of his previous burglaries had occurred while people were in the house. “His modus operandi was easy in, easy out,” Dugree said.

Also, Jones was admittedly drunk when he identified Townsend. Jones told the defense investi­gator that “I can’t even remember what this man looked like.”

Later, on the stand, Jones changed his tune and identified Townsend as the man he saw coming out of his neighbor’s house.

After three days of testimony, the jury found Townsend guilty, and Hedlund sentenced him to 20 years in prison because he was a repeat offender.

Townsend felt that he had not been fairly represented. After the trial, Townsend expressed frustrations to Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund that his defense attorney was inadequate. Townsend later filed an appeal alleging ineffective counsel, but the initial ruling was upheld.

“I’d say I can’t blame the jury,” Townsend said. “I’d have to blame the legal process and my attorney.”

Correcting the past

The Department of Justice’s $860,000 grant will count on the Innocence Project of Minnesota to be the first point of contact between prisoners who have their cases investigated and attorneys who will try the cases. It will be the state’s largest-ever comprehensive review of criminal cases involving DNA evidence.

The grant, given to the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, is just a slice of the nearly $10 million the Department of Justice’s Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program has awarded to nine states in 2009.

The Innocence Project of Minnesota, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and the Minnesota Board of Public Defense will team up to conduct the investigations.

The Innocence project will use some of the money to hire an additional lawyer, who will sift through the cases and identify if DNA may be able to be retested.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will use the money to hire a forensic scientist for 18 months and buy the chemicals to test the DNA. The forensic scientist must go through a year of on-the-job training to be qualified to do the testing, Kris Deters, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Nuclear DNA supervisor, said. The scientist will be mainly focused on looking through case files for DNA evidence to examine, Deters said.

In U.S. history, 245 inmates have been exonerated through DNA testing. Seventeen of the exonerated were on death row when they were freed. Only one has been freed from Minnesota.

If DNA testing proves innocence in a murder case, the case will be forwarded to the Minnesota Board of Public Defense or the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which will work to exonerate the falsely accused prisoners and prosecute the guilty party.

‘It’s getting better, little by little’

With the help of Jonas, Jones submitted an affidavit confessing to the burglary. In his confession, he gave details that were unexplained about the crime scene, such as a motive and intricate details about the inside of the house.

The confession was convincing enough that Hennepin County wanted to strike a deal with Townsend. If he agreed not to pursue a retrial, and therefore keep the crime on his record, the county would immediately release him.

“They said, ‘If you agree that you’ll drop your request for a new trial, and you won’t sue us, you can get out of here by noon today,'” Townsend said.

He weighed his options. Townsend wanted to prove his innocence but did not want to spend extra time in jail while the health of his 87-year-old mother deteriorated. She had recently suffered a series of strokes.

The fact that Hennepin County would release Townsend but not admit that he was innocent was a strategic move to avoid a lawsuit, Jonas said.

Dugree said a retrial was a risk for both parties, because if he pursued a retrial, Townsend would risk going back to prison. He was 57 years old.

“At the end of the day, we’re not dealing with something 100 percent like DNA evidence,” Dugree said.

Townsend chose to be released. He walked out of Hennepin County Jail on Oct. 2, 2007, and was able to spend the next five months with his mother before she passed away.

Now 59, Townsend lives in St. Paul, sings in a rhythm and blues band, holds a steady job as a janitor at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center and supports his son’s biweekly kidney dialysis procedures.

His life, however, has not been a complete success story since his release.

Townsend said he no longer has a desire to pursue women and has had a hard time adjusting to social situations.

In regard to whether he is living a full life, Townsend said, “It’s getting there. It’s getting better, little by little.”