Originally created 02/09/02

Columbia lawyers join effort to prove innocence with DNA

The Palmetto Innocence Project will be a test of how well the state's justice system has performed.

AIKEN - Justice in South Carolina will be tested under a program being developed to reveal wrongful convictions.

The inspiration for the project comes from the nationally recognized work of lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who have used DNA to free wrongfully convicted people from prison.

The Palmetto Innocence Project will be modeled after a successful student research program at Northwestern University, where journalism professor David Protess has used students to free 11 people from Illinois' death row. Because of that work, Gov. George Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions.

Columbia lawyer Joe McCulloch Jr. began a year ago to assemble a group of people in South Carolina for the innocence project. Officials have not set a date for starting the research, but Mr. McCulloch said he has received about 50 applications from inmates who maintain their innocence.

"I guess I read along with a lot of other people what was happening around the country," Mr. McCulloch said. "I hope our program in South Carolina will distinguish itself early on because there can't be any doubt that our system is no more perfect than any other system."

The project will use law and journalism students at the University of South Carolina to investigate cases.

Tim Brown, a former WJBF (Channel 6) anchorman and now a professor at the university's College of Journalism, said students could receive course credit for participating in the project.

A University of South Carolina Medical School professor, Dr. Edmund Higgins, collects false conviction cases for a database, which lists four men in the Palmetto State who were wrongfully convicted.

One of the cases was the Six-Points murders in Aiken, in which the man accused of the crime was spared a death sentence by a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. Eight years later, the real perpetrator confessed.

The case said to be the first finding of a wrongful conviction in South Carolina through DNA came in 1998.

A judge ordered a new trial, which brought the release of Perry Mitchell after he served 14 of 30 years for a 1982 rape in Lexington County.

Eleventh Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers decided not to retry the case after DNA from the crime scene did not match Mr. Mitchell's.

Mr. Myers said he didn't expect much from the proposed innocence project.

"I don't think it will be any earth-shattering thing," he said. "It will not change, in my opinion, what is going on now."

Patrick McCarthy, a lawyer with the Columbia law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough, said his firm will supply attorneys for the project.

"The system has never really been examined," Mr. McCarthy said. "It would be great if we worked for two years and don't find any innocence and find that the system is fine."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.


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