NCIP assists wrongfully convicted California prisoners who seek to advance claims of factual innocence. Large numbers of inmates seek our help. NCIP has developed a four-stage process to screen and investigate the hundreds of requests for assistance we receive each year.
Screening the Request
When NCIP receives an inmate request letter, the office manager logs it into NCIP’s case management database and sends it to NCIP’s intake attorney for initial screening and review. Depending on whether the claim meets NCIP’s case criteria, the intake attorney will either: (1) send the inmate a questionnaire requesting additional case information and copies of relevant documents, (2) refer the case to a more appropriate outside program/lawyer, or (3) reject the case. NCIP rejects approximately 60% of the requests for assistance at this initial stage of review either because actual innocence cannot be demonstrated or the request fails to meet NCIP’s case criteria.
The intake attorney opens a case file once a completed inmate questionnaire is returned. The NCIP intake attorney, staff attorneys, volunteers, and law clinic students conduct a labor-intensive second screening with information from the questionnaire and other documents. The team seeks to locate case documents and contact prior lawyers, investigators, law enforcement personnel, laboratories, and witnesses. The team also identifies and analyzes issues previously litigated which may affect judicial consideration of a new claim.
When the team has gathered a substantial amount of case information, the intake attorney presents the case to NCIP’s director who does one of the following: (1) places the case in NCIP’s queue to await attorney assignment for full investigation, (2) requests the team gather more information before a case decision is made, or (3) rejects and closes the case. If the team discovers new evidence of innocence that can be acted on immediately, the case is promptly assigned to an attorney for full investigation. NCIP closes another 15% of its cases at the preliminary investigation stage.
When a case is assigned to an NCIP attorney for full investigation, the attorney works with law clinic students to create and implement an investigation plan. At any point in this process, the case may be rejected and closed. Otherwise, the team proceeds with the investigation to seek evidence necessary to support an innocence claim. When biological material is found and there is potential for DNA testing, NCIP seeks to have the evidence tested by prosecutor agreement or if necessary, through litigation. Even those cases with potential for DNA testing involve a complexity of other factors resulting in possible wrongful convictions. NCIP investigates and litigates cases that involve a wide range of forensic issues including fire science, shaken baby syndrome, child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, hair and fingerprint analysis, as well as DNA.
Negotiation and Litigation
Once the legal team completes a full case investigation and finds sufficient evidence of innocence, an attorney begins the process to obtain relief for the inmate, including negotiation, collaboration, and litigation. In cases where forensic testing or other evidence excludes an inmate as the perpetrator, cooperation with the prosecuting agency is the most efficient avenue of relief. However, even with cooperation, the process can be difficult, requiring a thorough review of the trial record and, if necessary, additional investigation.
Where discussion and negotiation fail, NCIP initiates litigation, typically beginning with a petition for writ of habeas corpus that asks the court to overturn the conviction and provides the factual and legal basis for the request. These petitions are often based on claims of newly discovered evidence such as DNA test results or other forensic testing, and include other bases such as new witnesses, confessions from the true perpetrators, credible recantations, ineffective assistance of counsel, false testimony, unreliable science, and government misconduct. When possible, NCIP collaborates with law firms on a pro bono basis to assist with investigation and litigation.