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New State Laws enacted to reduce the rate of wrongly convicted people in Oklahoma

Posted at 7:49 AM, Nov 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-05 00:13:09-05

TULSA, Okla. — Incarceration rates in Oklahoma are staggering, but what some suggest is even more so is the number of people exonerated of crimes they did not commit.

Just this year, Oklahoma has released two men from the Department of Corrections after serving time for murder.

One was exonerated, the other given a reduced sentence.

New laws in the state are working to keep the innocent from being wrongly convicted, a trend activist hope to see decline.

The family of Willard O'Neal said they were torn after their loved one was locked away, convicted of first-degree murder.

It's a crime they claim he was never a part of.

Regina Edwards, O'Neal's cousin, said keeping the faith wasn't always easy waiting for his release.

"It was kind of hard, it was pretty hard, but we kept it," Edwards said.

O'Neal served nearly 17 years in prison without parole in connection to a 2001 murder in Tulsa. His release from prison was not exoneration, but a plea agreement negotiated by the Oklahoma Innocence Project.

"We found there might be that evidence might not have been turned over to the defense lawyers for the defense lawyer to investigate, so that started what we perceived to be a brady violation," Vicki Zemp Behenna, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project said.

O'Neal's case is an example of the work being done across the state involving incarcerated people, who's convictions contradict factual evidence.

Of those wrongfully convicted in the United States, 21 were serving time on death row, a staggering number to those looking to free the innocent from behind bars.

It is something that Zemp Behenna said happens often.

In fact, one-fourth of the Oklahoma Innocence Project's cases are from Tulsa County.

"More often than we would care to know," Zemp Behenna said. "We seem to have an issue here in Tulsa County. We have a lot of cases in Tulsa County which is problematic I think, but we're working through those."

The Innocence Project is dedicated to identifying and remedying cases of wrongfully convicted people in Oklahoma. Teams only pursue cases in which there is credible evidence that contradict a jury's conviction

However, overturning a conviction isn't always easy.

Steve Kunzweiler, the District Attorney for Tulsa County, said re-prosecuting a case decades later is difficult because witnesses are gone and memories forgotten.

"When you have to revisit these cases, I kind of call it revisionist history where you're trying to look back 18 years ago and see if there was some kind of problem, and it greatly effects our ability to re-prosecute a case," Kunzweiler said.

He adds evaluating those aspects of a court case is crucial.

"It's awful - the whole premise of the criminal justice court process is to marshal everything you have and put all that stuff out in front of a judge or jury," he said.

The Innocence project, however, looks for discrepancies in cases. thoroughly vetting testimonies and evidence.

"Anytime you see where there is a single person that is involved in leading to somebody's conviction that sends up a red flag," Zemp Behenna said.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Oklahoma ranks 6th in exonerations per capita from 1989 to 2012. It lists 36 wrongful convictions to date in the state alone, seven of those who were given the death penalty.

The number of exonerations is due in part to DNA testing and new laws enacted in Oklahoma that have led to many releases of the wrongly convicted.

Just this year, Oklahoma passed a law requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt written policies on eyewitness identification procedures and electronic recordings of all custodial interrogations for homicide and rape cases.

Take Corey Atchison, for example. He served time in prison for the last 28 years after he was convicted of shooting and killing a man during a robbery in 1990.

"You just move on, keep going, you know that's the only way you are going to make it," Atchison said. "And I can't hold no, can't hold no grudge," he said.

Atchison maintained his innocence until a Tulsa judge ruled his conviction as a miscarriage of justice and believed witnesses in the case had been coerced. Atchison walked away a free man on July 16.

The hope of the Oklahoma Innocence Project is that new policy will give police and prosecutors better tools to catch the real assailants, while innocent people avoid wrongful arrests.

The wrongfully convicted do get compensation from the state. They are entitled to receive $175,000 for the entirety of their wrongful incarceration if they did not plead guilty and were imprisoned solely as a result of the wrongful conviction.

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