Katie Monroe's departure this week from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project highlights both the successes of the nonprofit and the struggles it has faced as it works on behalf of those wrongly held behind bars in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.
The more success RMIC has had on behalf of prisoners wrongly convicted, the more push-back its got from the state. That's because, it seems, while no one wants innocent folks behind bars, folks don't always want to admit to mistakes.
The week Monroe departs Utah for her new innocence position in Washington, D.C., for the national Innocence Project, the Utah Attorney General's office will be arguing for the appeal of Judge Michael DiReda's decision to release Debra Brown from prison after he found her factually innocent of a 20-year-old murder.
The AG and RMIC historically had a good relationship. Together, they authored a 2008 non-DNA factual-innocence statute, which provides compensation for inmates who were found to be falsely convicted.
But with the success of Brown and particularly Harry Miller, whose exoneration eventually led to him being paid $100,000-plus by Utah for the 3 1/2 years he was wrongfully imprisoned (read the City Weekly cover story on Miller here), prosecutors have in the past two years questioned the bill's provisions to the Legislature on the basis of its provisions being too broad or available to too many people.
"Our repeated response has been there's only been three exonerations from 2008 and not that many petitions for exoneration," Monroe says.
RMIC has twice gone back to the statute and agreed to amending it to address the concerns of prosecutors and crime-victims' groups.
"The statute reflected the state's interests the first time it was crafted," Monroe says. "We've amended it twice to better reflect their interest. I hope that's the last time the state needs it."
Sadly, Monroe says, such attempts to close down the statute are all too common. "It's is a difficult thing to accept that mistakes were made under our system," she says. "What we would like to see is change in the culture in the way government officials respond to wrongful convictions. We'd like it to grow to a place where government officials realize that correcting mistakes is good for all of us and not just the person in prison."
For Harry Miller, the statute meant that with the money Utah paid him he could go home to Louisiana and back to his old job at a factory in the Bayou town of Donaldsonville. "He's enjoying the quiet life," Monroe says with satisfaction. "I think he's settled back in at home."
Photo by Erik Daenitz, from 2011 City Weekly cover story "An Innocent Man"