IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) - Recent attention surrounding true crime documentaries like the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” may have an impact on exonerations for Iowa’s innocent prisoners.
The documentary series follows the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of rape. Avery has since been convicted of murder in a separate case that has many viewers questioning the evidence leading to the conviction.
Legal experts in Iowa say the increase in awareness about the potential for mistakes in the criminal justice system could lead to a bump in case reviews and third party information that may eventually lead to exonerations.
“I think it’s good for the public, a broader range of people, to see and understand the complexity of this,” said Dr. Brian Farrell, a University of Iowa law professor and president of the Innocence Project of Iowa. “I think the awareness of these issues is probably going to lead to an increase in people seeking assistance.”
Nationally there have been 337 DNA exonerations and more than 1,400 non-DNA exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School. Iowa has never had a DNA exoneration, and the registry lists just 12 non-DNA exonerations for state cases in Iowa.
“We don’t know whether there is a clear-cut DNA exonerations case out there in Iowa, I would say we haven’t had the full time resources to look for and find that case,” said Farrell.
But that is changing thanks to the creation of the Wrongful Conviction Division, a new branch of the State Public Defenders office. Governor Terry Branstad announced the division last fall following an acknowledgement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that hair analysis techniques used by agents for decades weren’t exact.
“There’s no way that you can say [there’s a] one-in-a-million chance that this hair came from somebody else, yet that was the type of testimony that was routinely given by FBI agents throughout the country,” said State Public Defender Adam Gregg. “It presents an issue for Iowa because those same FBI agents who testified erroneously in those cases trained Iowa’s DCI agents in the same type of procedures.”
The Wrongful Conviction Division already has more than 90 cases to review. The division is working with the Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation to identify cases that may have involved bad hair analysis techniques in need of a closer look, Gregg said.
“I think there is a very very good chance this is going to exonerate some people,” said Audrey McGinn, Director of the Wrongful Conviction Division.
In addition to the hair cases, McGinn has been contacted by about 15-20 prisoners asking her to review their cases.
“The more the inmates learn about what we’re doing, and learn that there are people dedicated specifically to these kinds of issues, I think the cases will be coming in more frequently over the next few years,” she said.
Before coming to Iowa, McGinn worked with the California Innocence Project, an organization that has exonerated 19 people since its creation. McGinn said she also feels that crime documentaries like Making a Murderer are good for society and will likely have an impact on the criminal justice system moving forward.
“It’s a human system and humans make mistakes, witnesses get it wrong, not intentionally, and they just make mistakes,” said McGinn. “Everybody is talking about these issues and it’s fantastic, so it’s not just us in the legal community that realize sometimes innocent people get sentenced and convicted of things they didn’t do.”
In 2015 a record 149 people were exonerated from prisons across the United States, according to the national registry.