Earlier this month legislators in Ohio passed Senate Bill 77, a groundbreaking reform package that the Innocence Project calls a “National Model” for other states working on reforms to existing laws that govern lineup procedures, police interrogations, evidence preservation and methods for parolees to apply for DNA testing.
The Innocence Project, a national organization headquartered in New York City at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, worked closely with the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) for the last two years to help pass these critical reforms. Locally, lawyers and law students at the OIP worked diligently to research and draft the legislation that has now been signed into law by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. The impact of the law, which brings new protections for avoiding wrongful convictions and easier access to DNA testing to innocent prisoners, is summed up by the sponsor of the bill in the Ohio House, Rep. Tyrone Yates, D-Cincinnati. He declared, “This is one of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in this state in a century.”
A joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch was integral to the reform’s momentum, and assured that the findings of the OIP research were well-documented. Dispatch reporters Mike Wagner and Geoff Dutton used their investigative reporting acumen to assist the OIP in researching case files, searching evidence facilities, and interviewing prisoners and victims alike in many of the nearly 300 applications for post-conviction DNA testing that the OIP received. The result was The Dispatch’s weeklong series, “Test of Convictions.” The articles outlined flaws in Ohio that could only be remedied by dramatic changes to law enforcement policies on evidence preservation, interrogations, suspect lineups and eyewitness photo identification, and access to post-conviction DNA testing. Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project, provided the leadership and supervision to the group that built legislative support for the bill, including meeting with key legislators and providing information on the social science research and effectiveness of reforms in other states. DNA Diagnostics Center-Forensics provided pro bono DNA testing on many of the cases identified by the OIP as having legitimate claims of innocence, minimizing the state of Ohio’s cost for testing. Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears, both of Columbus, were exonerated as a result of the OIP/Dispatch joint project. McClendon and other Ohio exonerees served as a powerful spokespersons for the need for legislative reform.
The Senate Bill 77 changes to police practices are so comprehensive that Ohio has become a “model state” concerning reforms to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction. While states across the US are adopting some of these changes, none other than Ohio has implemented an omnibus bill of this magnitude.