It sounds simple, but can be easy to forget when you do this work. Over the past few years, I’ve watched too many judges ignore the law and have seen too many cases where prosecutors ignore or seemingly take advantage of our efforts to collaborate.
But last month we were reminded that our work is a long game, and that our focus on enacting fair laws and building strong relationships with our traditional adversaries makes a real difference.
In the case of Roy Watford, one word – one letter, really – made the difference between full exoneration and remaining a registered sex offender for a crime he didn’t commit.
Watford won a Writ of Actual Innocence in the Virginia Supreme Court last month, becoming the first person in Virginia to win a Writ that was opposed by the Attorney General’s office. He won thanks to the terrific lawyering of Jon Sheldon and to a one-word legislative change that MAIP and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli successfully pushed through in 2013.
That change was the outgrowth of our work with Cuccinelli and his office on the Thomas Haynesworth case, which we won by only one vote, despite it being a case where all parties agreed that Haynesworth was innocent. The dissenters in the case thought we had failed to prove that “no rational trier of fact could find proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the law said we had to do.
Because of our work with Cuccinelli, we were at the table for the discussions about how to make the law better. And, while not perfect, the change mattered for Watford and will matter for other innocent people who are trying to obtain their freedom.
The legislature in Virginia is a difficult place for criminal-justice reformers, so we worked hard with our partners at the Innocence Project to craft a proposal that would be modest but meaningful. In the end, we proposed something that only a lawyer could love: a one-word change requiring those with new evidence of innocence to prove that “no rational trier of fact would have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The admittedly small change did something important, however, ensuring that Virginia no longer used the strictest standard required in the law and instead used a standard that other courts have considered more forgiving.
Cuccinelli called me last month to celebrate the win, and he reminded me of just how hard it was to get that simple change passed and of how many people said the change wouldn’t matter.
His call was well timed. When he called, I was in the midst of working on a Maryland bill that would allow those who pled guilty to seek post-conviction DNA testing and challenge their convictions based on newly discovered evidence of innocence – rights they had until the courts took them away over the past two years.
These decisions matter. They kept people like Demetrius Smith, the client of our affiliate University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic and former board chair Barry Pollack, from being able to clear his name in a case where he pled guilty.
The Maryland Attorney General’s office led the charge to take away those rights, and the AG and prosecutors helped scuttle a bill last year that would have restored them. Nevertheless, we’ve been working hard to build relationships with the relevant lawyers in the AG’s office along with our partners at the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic and the Innocence Project. This year, instead of fighting each other, we worked together.
The process was painstaking, but it looks like the bill is going to pass both Maryland houses and will go to the governor soon. That’s because both sides listened, came to understand and trust each other better, and ultimately were able to craft language that isn’t perfect for either side but will help ensure that people like Demetrius can clear their names.