Until this week, Katie Monroe was the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Monroe got involved in innocence work when her mother was wrongly convicted of murder in Virginia for the suicide death of her boyfriend. For a decade, Monroe worked on her mother’s case, which was ultimately successful. Monroe then worked at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington, D.C., before being attracted to Utah through the beauty of Park City’s ski slopes. Now, six years later, Monroe will be going back to D.C. to do policy work for the national Innocence Project, collaborating with police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to improve the legal system.
What does the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center do?
We are responsible for looking into claims of innocence by people who are in prison in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. We get just under 200 requests for help every year. But not all of those end up being claims of innocence. People write to us about all sorts of stuff, and then we have to sort out which of those are actual claims of innocence and then which ones we can work on. At any one time, we tend to have 15 to 20 cases that we’re investigating across all three states. We have two or three cases currently in court, and about another four that we’re getting ready to file for DNA testing.
How do you decide who’s innocent?
People write to us, and we have a case assistant who reads all the letters and determines whether they meet the basic criteria. And then if they do, she sends them a questionnaire that asks them a lot of questions about their case. And if they don’t meet our criteria, they either get rejected or referred to another organization. We have a component of our board that spends time analyzing the questionnaires that end up getting completed and returned to determine if it’s a credible claim of innocence—meaning, does it read like a story of someone who wasn’t involved in any way? And, more importantly, is there something we could do—some line of investigation that was never pursued, some physical evidence that’s never been collected or tested, or some line of witness interviews that never happened? All statutes governing innocence claims require that you uncover something new, something that wasn’t available at the time of trial.
Lots of cases are “he said, she said” cases, where the only evidence against a person is the testimony of another person—there isn’t any physical evidence that could be developed, there isn’t an alibi that could be developed. There are a lot of cases that we turn away not because the person may not have a legitimate claim of innocence, but because there’s not anything we could do to prove it. And that’s really hard. Sometimes we turn them away in the screening phase, and sometimes we’re in it a year or two before we realize that that’s where it’s going and we have to close it. I think those are harder than anything else, where we come to believe that the crime didn’t occur but there’s nothing we can do about it.
We don’t ever take cases where the claim is just, “I didn’t have a fair trial.” We have people who write to us and say, “I was there, but I didn’t fire the bullet,” or “I was there, but I didn’t commit the robbery.” If they are involved in any way, we can’t take the case.
How has the organization changed since you’ve been involved?
When I started, there was a board of directors that was working the cases themselves, without staff support, without a lot of partners in the community to help with that work. And up until 2011, we had just one staff person—me. And then we got a Department of Justice grant that allowed us to hire two more people, and they help with that in-house screening. Now we have partnerships with all four law schools in the three states, and a number of law students each year help us develop the cases. We have relationships with law firms in all three states, and those firms step in and help us when we’re ready to go to court. We didn’t have statutes that we could bring cases under. In the past six years, we’ve also passed laws in all three states that now we can go back into court with claims of innocence. We’re still limited. We have three people in three states with 200 claims for help, but we’re a lot better than we were, which is exciting.
What changes do you hope to see in the RMIC going forward?
My law background has been really helpful in building the organization, but we specifically looked for someone who did not have a law background in hiring my replacement [Jennifer Hare]. We looked for someone with a nonprofit management and development background, because what we need now is someone who can come in and grow it. Ideally, we’ll have income that allows us to hire more staff. We’ve got the staff we’ve got now as a result of a Department of Justice grant, which is terrific, but you can’t always count on government money to fund us. As a nonprofit, you can’t count on anyone—you just never know where the money’s gonna come from. So the hope would be to grow our budget to the point that we could sustain a staff of three or more. There’s so much work to do in education and policy reform.
What kind of education and reform is needed?
We have a joint mission to find out who in prison may be innocent, and also try to prevent wrongful conviction in the first place, which involves a lot of education and outreach to police and prosecutors and judges and legislators. We do a lot of it in a very ad hoc manner because we don’t have one person devoted to that. There are really simple improvements that could be put in place to increase the reliability of eyewitnesses, increase the reliability of interrogations, increase the chances that police will collect evidence and preserve it. Innocence projects in other states have had a lot of success working with law enforcement to get those things implemented, but it’s an equally time-consuming part of our mission, and we really need staff to help make that happen. We have a great network of volunteers to help on our casework, but it’s not as easy to get a network of volunteers into your education and policy-reform work.
Right now, we’re working with the Nevada Attorney General to create and implement eyewitness-identification reform in all of the police agencies in Nevada, and it’s a huge job. It’s one of the things that innocence projects really struggle with. They’re trying to figure out who was wrongly convicted in the past, but mistakes still happen in the present. The tension is, where do we stop working on past cases to start working on future cases. A good innocence project does them both.