Tiffany Murphy is director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which operates from the Oklahoma City University College of Law. The mission of OIP is to identify and remedy cases of wrongful conviction in the state. Oklahoma ranks among the top 10 states for the number of wrongfully convicted persons serving prison sentences. Murphy oversees teams of law students and staff that work to investigate these cases.
In Oklahoma’s situation, [Dean Emeritus] Larry Hellman felt there was a need to establish an Innocence Project, and he wanted it affiliated with OCU. At the time, I was legal director and interim director at the Midwest Innocence Project and had collaborated with him previously. When he was ready to open the project, he asked me to set it up. The project is the only one in the state, and we investigate cases of actual innocence in all non-capital cases at the state and federal level as long as the conviction was in Oklahoma.
I think part of the reason the numbers [of wrongful convictions in Oklahoma] are what they are is because there was no agency addressing the needs on the ground for those people with convictions for less than death to determine that there was a wrongful conviction. That was the largest concern with establishing the OIP.
Most inmates write the Project directly seeking assistance. Those inmates are sent a questionnaire asking about what happened in their cases from the arrest, trial and appeals. Once the questionnaire is returned, we determine if there is an indication that the inmate was wrongfully convicted. The Project staff and students will talk with the inmate and review materials until we either close the case or there appears to be some merit to the innocence claim. Continuing the review of the file requires the inmate to send us legal files that will be given to clinic students for evaluation and investigation. The investigation continues until we can legally prove a claim of innocence or we determine the case has no merit. We filed our first petition on behalf of Karl Fontenot in July 2013. (Fontenot was convicted of murder, robbery and kidnapping in 1986 and retried and convicted again in 1988). Project students and staff are continuing to review cases and prepare cases for litigating claims of actual innocence.
The project, while affiliated with OCU, sustains wholly on private donations. The average cost of a case can range from $60,000 to $100,000, from start to finish. We’ve received over 800 requests, and right now we have a backlog of 80 to 100 cases needing review. The need is great, and we hope to meet that need.