States with similar incarceration rates to that of Tennessee have far more exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. For example, there have been 61 exonerations of North Carolina defendants, 57 of people convicted in Louisiana, and 96 exonerations from Michigan.
Only 21 exonerations are listed from Tennessee
It’s unlikely that our courts are profoundly more accurate than those of our sister states, so why is our exoneration list so much shorter? North Carolina, Louisiana and Michigan all have organizations dedicated to helping people who have credible claims that they are actually innocent of the crimes they were convicted of committing.
Now, Tennessee has one, too. It’s called the Tennessee Innocence Project, and it was founded earlier this year by Nashville criminal defense lawyer Jessica Van Dyke. The organization operates statewide and is funded primarily by donations.
Van Dyke points out that, no matter how complex the case, the state of Tennessee only provides $1,000 for attorneys to review criminal cases. There is no additional funding for litigating any innocence claims that are revealed by the investigation. Even in the case of a complex murder trial, the attorney only receives $1,000, even when what is required is a full review and re-investigation of the evidence. That means that defendants without independent means have had virtually no chance of proving their innocence.
Yet, since 1989, there have been more than 2,500 exonerations in the United States. That translates to over 22,000 years lost by people who were wrongfully incarcerated.
The Tennessee Innocence Project will focus on finding credible innocence claims in Tennessee and working to get innocent people exonerated. It will also train law students and other lawyers on how to work these cases. Van Dyke hopes to work with a local law firm on each case, giving the firm an opportunity to do some truly fulfilling pro bono work.
According to Van Dyke, much of the activity in these cases involves DNA that was never tested or which needs to be retested with modern methods, along with faulty forensic evidence and the results of mistake or misconduct.
“This whole system is controlled and operated by humans, so you’re going to have human error,” Van Dyke told the Nashville Scene in February. “The thing that I like to convey to people is it’s not about placing blame necessarily – it’s about investigating, looking into the case, figuring out why this happened and [whether it’s] right.”
Attorneys of Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers recently attended the first benefit fundraiser for the Tennessee Innocence Project.as a Silver Sponsor. You can give to the Tennessee Innocence Project or seek assistance with a wrongful conviction by visiting the organization’s website