GRAND FORKS — Several times a month, University of North Dakota law students Morgan Tuss and Anastasija Ceklic meet, pore over documents and try to determine if anyone in their investigatory files has been wrongfully convicted.
Along with their adviser, UND Law School professor Steven Morrison, the two make up a small group in Grand Forks known as North Dakota’s branch of the Innocence Project.
“You're doing the public good, and you're dealing with real-life situations,” said Ceklic, a second-year law student from Winnipeg.
“There's two parties, and there's two sides to every story,” said Tuss, also a second-year law student from Billings, Mont. “The vital part of the justice system is that you're innocent until proven guilty, and it's not the other way around.”
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The Innocence Project is a nonprofit group founded in 1992 that uses DNA evidence and justice reform to help exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. North Dakota’s branch has been active since 2017, said Julie Jonas, legal director for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which oversees cases in North Dakota.
“We’ve been doing work here in Minnesota since 2002, and very early on, we decided that we would try and take cases from North and South Dakota if they involved the potential for DNA testing,” Jonas said.
It’s unclear how many people across the country are wrongfully convicted, but Jonas said her organization suspects about 3% of U.S. prisoners are innocent. That would equal about 69,000 of the 2.3 million people in correctional facilities, according to 2019 data.
With dozens of Innocence Project branches around the U.S., law students, attorneys and legal experts have helped exonerate 367 people through the organization, including 21 inmates on death row.
One case in North Dakota, handled by the Minnesota branch, was that of Richard John LaFuente. He was convicted in 1986 of killing police officer Jerome Edward Peltier in 1983 on the Spirit Lake Reservation. Eleven men, including LaFuente, were convicted in connection to Peltier’s death, but eight of those convictions were vacated due to lack of evidence.
LaFuente, who maintained his innocence while serving a life sentence, was denied parole three times but was released in 2014 after spending more than 28 years behind bars, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project, Jonas said.
“There was a ton of evidence he didn’t do the crime,” she said. “The victim’s family was traveling to his parole hearings to say that they didn’t think he was guilty.”
Ceklic and Tuss each are working on three cases, including a murder and sexual assault conviction, Ceklic said.
At the moment, they are in the investigatory phase, meaning they are trying to gather court documents, hearing transcripts, evidence from attorneys who worked the cases and anything else that may prove a convict's innocence. They may have to speak with witnesses, experts and clients.
“You'd be surprised actually how hard it is to get some of the past discovery and the client files from previous attorneys because probably no one likes having their work double-checked,” Ceklic said.
The Innocence Project in Minnesota can conduct DNA testing for North Dakota, but it takes staff to review other aspects of cases, Jonas said. The organization reached out to UND to see if law students would be interested in conducting independent studies of cases, she said.
“Most of the cases dealing with ... DNA have already been worked through the system,” professor Morrison said. “The project still deals with DNA cases, but a lot of the cases that we've dealt with here in North Dakota have to do with false confessions and possible false witness identification.”
As a defense attorney, Morrison said he is passionate about making sure people get justice. “I think the worst thing that can happen is somebody is convicted of a crime they didn't commit,” he said.
The North Dakota branch hasn’t had any success stories since it opened in 2017, which is not surprising since it takes years to develop cases, Jonas said. Students at the University of Sioux Falls and the University of South Dakota also started accepting cases in South Dakota last fall.
The experience has taught Ceklic to look at cases with a new perspective, to follow every avenue in a case and to be more empathetic toward people.
“These are real people with real lives and real consequences,” she said, adding that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone. “Honestly, my opinion is that every student in law school should be involved in this type of work.”
Tuss is not immune to seeing a person in the news and thinking he or she is guilty, but she said everyone deserves to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Some people can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, she said.
The Constitution guarantees rights to residents —the right to a jury, a speedy trial, the right to remain silent and the right to confront accusers — to protect against being wrongfully convicted, she added.
“It applies to everyone whether or not we can see it in the moment,” Tuss said.
When people are wrongfully convicted, valuable citizens are lost, and the real perpetrators are still on the loose, Jonas said.
The prosecution bears the burden of proof, but the justice system is a “very powerful machine once it’s rolling” and amassing its resources against a person, Jonas said.
“These people who have been caught up in this," she said, "they're all somebody's son or daughter or husband or brother."
Jonas put it this way: What if the person wrongly accused was you or one of your family members?