Finding Freedom for Innocent Inmates

Two high profile exoneration cases that have been in the news recently are the result of work done by Harris County's post conviction review section. As Laurie Johnson reports, the district attorneys in the department comb through hundreds of cases looking for evidence that could help free people who were wrongfully convicted.
The first thing to do when thinking about Harris County's Post-Conviction Review Section is throw out any mental images you have of CSI or Law & Order.

"I wish it was like on Cold Case where you could just go back and just see it happen, because I know exactly what happened now and it would -- it's almost like I could recreate it in my head."

"I want it to be CSI so I could drive around in a Hummer."

That's Alicia O'Neill and Baldwin Chin, both assistant district attorneys for Harris County. Chin is also the chief prosecutor for their department.

The two attorneys are responsible for unearthing evidence that recently freed two innocent men. Allen Wayne Porter spent 19 years in prison for a rape and robbery he didn't commit. Michael Anthony Green was released after 27 years in prison, also for a sexual assault he was not involved in.

"Once I could identify the three people who commited the sexual assault and I knew that it wasn't Michael Anthony Green, at that point obviously we all had a 'aha' moment."

Green's case was solved through DNA evidence, using technology that simply wasn't available 27 years ago. Porter, on the other hand, was freed because fingerprints found at the scene were finally matched to other men. The attorneys investigated the cases because each of the inmates made special pleas for their convictions to be reviewed.

"The Harris County District Attorney's Office is dedicated to the pursuit of justice, whatever form that takes."

"And I would agree with that. I mean if that means that we work hard to convict a person that was guilty of a crime, then we will do that. That's part of justice as well. And on the other side I think that a prosecutor's worst nightmare -- I think any prosecutor's worst nightmare is an innocent person going to prison."

Which is why O'Neill and Chin have literally hundreds of case files stacked in their tiny offices -- folders and boxes representing the lives of people who claim they are innocent. They prioritize by choosing cases that could have verifiable forensic evidence. And they say the job is bittersweet.

"We feel happy that the innocent inmate can be released and even in some cases be compensated. The other side is it's just tragic, and I can't imagine a prosecutor not having a heavy heart for any inmate that has been convicted of an offense and confined for some time."

"You're waiting for that great feeling that you get when you get justice, but it's coupled with this horrible sad feeling that there's been such a long time, such a delay."

The two prosecutors say they believe in the criminal justice system -- that it works most of the time. But they also believe mistakes happen, and that's why they're convinced their unit, one of the only of its kind in the nation, is so important.

Laurie Johnson, KUHF News.
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...