Inmates seek justice through ‘Innocence’

Marissa Boyers Bluestine often stays up late wondering if a 16-year-old, who was charged with a life sentence 23 years ago, is innocent.

Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple, commits eight-hour work days, and sometimes nights, reviewing petitions from inmates, some of whom were sentenced to life in prison as young as 16 years old and may have been wrongfully convicted.

As part of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit corporation that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, Bluestine is in the process of reading hundreds of petitions she’s received since the project opened its doors on Main Campus earlier this month.

“My worst thought would be if we reject somebody at this point that really shouldn’t be rejected,” said Bluestine, who was a Philadelphia public defender for 10 years.

The project, which is still in the beginning phase of operation, expects to have students from the Beasley School of Law, as well as attorneys, to assist in reviewing applications from inmates serving at least five years in Pennsylvania prisons.

Richard Glazer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said the project allows for advocacy among students interested in enhancing the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

“It’s really four things we’re really trying to accomplish: security, exoneration and release from imprisonment of people who despite their innocence, have been wrongly convicted,” he said.

“We anticipate having students with particularized training around investigation to get involved and start digging into these cases and start looking and seeing where are there provable claims of innocence,” she said.

The Temple office deals with all cases in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania outside a 100-mile radius from Pittsburgh.

“As soon as the doors were opened, the inmates’ letters were coming in rapid pace,” Glazer said. “The April 7 event showed that we touched a cord here in Philadelphia.”

The Innocence Project at Temple does not only focus on biological evidence like DNA testing, but on cases in which police informants, false testimonies and mistaken eye-witnesses and other forensic evidence are involved.

Nationwide, there have been 235 exonerations involving DNA, Bluestine said.

“Innocence Law is essentially the civil rights movement of our time, and for Temple to be the locust of that makes every sense in the world,” she added. “Police tend to focus on the wrong suspect early. We need to ensure that police initially are keeping the investigation open without focusing too early.”

Bluestine said relying too much on eyewitness identifications can lead to inmates being wrongfully accused.

Seventy-five percent of people who have been wrongfully convicted involve eye-witness testimonies, she said.

“All of those issues, which we see as causes of wrongful conditions, are coming out in these letters. Every letter has to touch you in some way,” she said, pointing to the eight-inch pile of petitions on her desk. “I know most of these clients are not innocent. They’re looking for a straw of hope, but some of them very well are.”

As piles of applications continue to pour into Bluestine’s office every day, she is reminded of the fact that there are innocent inmates who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers.

“To lock somebody up for the rest of their life for something they did as a teenager is inhumane,” she said. “There’s really not a lot of difference between executing somebody for something they did when they were 16 and incarcerating them for the rest of their life for something they did when they were 16.”

Brittany Diggs can be reached at bdiggs@temple.edu.

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