tions in New Jersey in the last 24 years.)
There are no official figures on exonerations in New Jersey or elsewhere.
It is also difficult to know how many
prisoners are doing time for crimes they
did not commit. Paul Cates, spokesman
for the Innocence Project in New York,
says his organization figures the range is
from 2. 3 to 5 percent. The most conservative estimate from the exoneration community nationally is about 1 percent. In
New Jersey, where Risinger’s group says
about 5,498 convicts are serving sentences of 15 years or more, that would mean
55 innocents. With no government body
devoted to helping felons claiming innocence after appeals have been exhausted, the work often falls to people on the
fringe of the system, such as Risinger.
“The presumption is that if you are
convicted, you are guilty,” says Barry J.
Pollack, an experienced criminal defense
litigator based in Washington, D.C., who
has worked with Risinger and has significant experience with exonerations.
“Courts don’t like to reopen old cases. It
takes creativity and persistence.”
FREEING A PERSON WHO HAS BEEN TRIED,
convicted and sent to prison requires the
stamina of a long-distance runner. Attorneys face a marathon of paperwork and
court battles, all necessary to persuade an
overburdened criminal justice system to
revisit a case that has been dealt with and
closed. The work also requires the hide of
a rhinoceros: The exoneration lawyer can
expect resistance and, at times, outright
hostility from the cops, prosecutors and
defense lawyers whose competence or
honesty is called into question.
Reinvestigation of closed cases requires not only persistence, but powers
of persuasion far beyond the ordinary.
Witnesses, who typically have nothing
to gain and much to lose by cooperating,
often have to be cajoled into re-testifying.
“Lesley is incredibly tenacious,” says Kate
Germond, director of Centurion Minis-
tries, a Princeton-based exoneration ini-
tiative that deals with cases from around
the United States and Canada.
Since announcing the Exoneration Project, Risinger has been swamped with more
than 300 letters from New Jersey prisoners urging her to take up their causes. Their
missives arrive at her small, windowless office in shoe boxes wrapped with duct tape,
fat yellow business envelopes, or whatever
packaging prisoners can lay their hands on.
She patiently sifts through every one.
Risinger believes the Project’s first
official (and to date, only) client, Kevin
Baker, was the victim of overreaching by
investigators and prosecutors, and of an
inadequate defense. The man and woman
Baker is in prison for murdering were the
13th and 14th people killed in Camden in
the first month of 1995. The two were well
liked in the community, and their deaths
capped a crime spree that outraged the
community and prompted street protests.
Risinger contends that extensive media
coverage put extraordinary pressure on
the authorities to find the culprits quickly.
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