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Thursday, February 29, 2024

UW-Madison group fights at Capitol for the wrongly convicted

Representatives from the Wisconsin Innocence Project presented before roughly 40 state legislators and staff members Wednesday, emphasizing the need for law enforcement to wear electronic surveillance devices, as well as a need for an increase in the compensation for Wisconsinites who are wrongly convicted of crimes.

The program, which comprises UW-Madison Law School students and faculty, investigates cases to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals by examining DNA evidence and eyewitness testimony. The group has roughly 100 cases open and has exonerated 22 individuals since its inception in 1998.

Wisconsin Innocence Project co-founder Keith Findley said wrongful convictions harm all of society.

“Every time we convict an innocent person we fail to convict the true perpetrator,” Findley said. “These cases provide a window into the system so we can study what went wrong.”

In the case of Chris Ochoa, whose case the program handled, faulty testimony and police misconduct led to Ochoa being forced to admit to the 1988 rape and murder of Nancy DePriest, crimes he did not commit.

“[Law enforcement] said if you don’t tell us what you know, you get the death penalty, even if you didn’t [commit the crime],” Ochoa said. “I was scared and I thought I had nowhere to turn.”

Ochoa was exonerated in 2002 with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project and later graduated from the UW-Madison Law School. Findley said electronic surveillance of law enforcement could have helped prevent Ochoa’s original conviction.

Handling cases such as Ochoa’s provides practical experience that is rare for students, according to Pat DuBois, a second year law student.

“This is an opportunity to do real work for real clients and help someone,” DuBois said. “It is rare for law students to have that opportunity.”

The group’s efforts garnered praise from both Democrats and Republicans. State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, who helped organize the event with state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, applauded its work as a way to uphold the integrity of the state’s communities.

“[Wrongful convictions] tear apart the fabric of communities and families,” Kooyenga said. “We are grateful that there are dedicated people who are seeking to find these cases and rectify them.”

Kooyenga said he is planning to author legislation that would increase compensation for wrongly convicted individuals. The bill would correct a system Findley said is currently the worst in the nation.

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Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the group an embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.

“These kinds of projects are essential,” Barca said after the presentation. “It fits in perfectly with the Wisconsin Idea and upholds Wisconsin values.”

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