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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mississippi Innocence Project to WIn its First Exoneration

It looks to be a busy year for the Mississippi Innocence Project, which began operation this month. The clinic housed at the University of Mississippi School of Law has started examining cases and will be pushing for legislative reform.

Project director Tucker Carrington said the state Legislature is to consider legislation this year that would allow prisoners like Arthur Johnson to request DNA testing that could prove their innocence

On Jan. 4, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered the Sunflower County Circuit Court to determine whether Johnson's conviction 15 years ago for rape and burglary should be set aside. Recent DNA testing provided conclusive evidence that Johnson is not the person who committed the rape.

Johnson was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to 55 years in prison, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Johnson's lawyer, Emily Maw from Innocence Project New Orleans, said she expects the Sunflower County Circuit Court to hold a hearing soon to review the new DNA evidence.

"This DNA testing proves that Arthur Johnson was telling the truth when he claimed from the beginning that he is innocent of this charge," she said.

If the court releases Johnson, he will be the first prisoner in state history to be fully exonerated based on DNA testing performed after the trial. The decision comes just as the UM law school's new Innocence Clinic begins operation, Carrington said.

The Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Johnson, has successfully represented numerous prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi and is playing a crucial role in the founding of the new clinic. The Mississippi Innocence Project was started with funding from many people, including author John Grisham and Columbus attorney Wilbur Colom.

The Legislature also is to consider requiring law enforcement authorities and courts to preserve biological evidence, even after a person is convicted, Carrington said. Mississippi is one of eight states without statute providing access to DNA testing for prisoners with claims of innocence. Legislative reform is a moral obligation, he said.

"Arthur Johnson's exoneration is yet another compelling example of the powerful tool that DNA evidence can provide - for people like Mr. Johnson, as well as for law enforcement who now have an unsolved case on their hands but also solid leads on the real perpetrator," Carrington said. "But this kind of evidence can only be helpful if it exists, and for that, Mississippi needs legislation to ensure that there will be clearly established procedures to provide for preservation and testing of this evidence for those whose claims of innocence could be proven but who cannot afford to pay for it." [Mark Godsey]

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