The Oregon Innocence Project

by Julia Neumann

Every year on the second Wednesday in May, OES participates in Mount Hood Climb Service Day.

Small groups of students from the upper, middle, and lower school head out to the greater Portland area to offer their service with various organizations. These can range from food shelters to animal shelters. This year, the group I was in went to volunteer with an organization, called the Oregon Innocence Project, that works to obtain DNA samples in order to acquit wrongfully convicted criminals in order to grant them their freedom.

The Oregon Innocence Project works to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted, train law students, and promote various legal reforms that are aimed towards the prevention of wrongful convictions. Because of the nature of the organization we were working with and the expertise required to work within the subject area, our service was less hands on. However, we had the opportunity to listen to many of the members working with the OIP and write letters to our local senate and house representatives based on some bills they were aiming to promote.

Throughout the day we heard from Amie Wexler, who was our host, Bobbin Singh, Brittany Plesser, and Joseph Rollin. All of these people work with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, however, on MHCSD, we were specifically working with one project – The Oregon Innocence Project. First, we heard from Wexler and Bobbin Singh, who taught us about the general legal system behind convictions and how the trials work along with the flaws in the system.

After learning more about how trials work, especially the cases that the OIP works with, we were shown a video on SB-1008, which is a bill that basically provides more protection against Measure 11. In Oregon, Measure 11 is the law that allows for minors, ages 15, 16, or 17, to be tried in an adult court for certain crimes if the judge condemns it, instead of going to a juvenile court. This means that any mistake a youth might be convicted of while they are still a minor will remain on their criminal record for the remainder of their life. The bill also works to allow there to be a “second look” in the middle of a conviction. This means that youth who have been incarcerated will have the opportunity to acquitted halfway through their sentence from the crime they committed as a child. Following learning about this, we each wrote a letter to our local House Representative explaining why we supported it, and why they should too.

Next we heard more about the specific process that the OIP goes through with DNA cases. We heard about the current case they are working on, based on a murder of a woman in Salem, Oregon back in 1998. Currently, the OIP has been working to get DNA testing done on 36 items that were found in the apartment where the woman was murdered in order to find the convicted man on death row innocent. While we were there, they explained that DNA testing is crucial for many death row cases where the convicted person is innocent in order to prove their innocence.

For how small the staff in the office was, it was impressive to see how progressive the Oregon Innocence Project was in working towards exonerating many wrongfully convicted individuals, promoting better legislative reforms to prevent these convictions in the first place, and to overall work on bettering the juridical system in Oregon.