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Alaska Innocence Project to host fundraiser Friday

Posted: February 6, 2013 - 12:03am

The Alaska Innocence Project, which strives to exonerate prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted, will host its first fundraiser in Juneau this Friday, Feb. 8.

The fundraiser is part of an effort to raise awareness in Southeast Alaska of the relatively new nonprofit as it continues to grow. Although based in Anchorage, it serves the entire state.

“It is our first time down there,” AIP Executive Director Bill Oberly said in a phone interview, adding that the idea for the trip to Juneau was suggested by several Juneau attorneys. “We’re hoping this is the first of many.”

Oberly will give a talk about the project and its cases at Rockwell following a showing of Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Central Park Five” (2012) at The Gold Town Nickelodeon.

According to its synopsis online, Central Park Five is about five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were arrested and convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. The teens spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, resulting in their convictions being overturned.

Oberly says the movie contains themes that are common in wrongful conviction cases, and that it is a good opportunity to do both public outreach and public education about AIP.

“It’s kind of a good tie-in,” he said.

The AIP was founded in 2006, but really just got off the ground in 2008, Oberly says. It’s an offshoot of the national Innocence Project in New York City.

Prior to that, Alaskans seeking exoneration received legal help from the University of Washington through their regional Innocence Project chapter — Innocence Project Northwest. Oberly says they were overwhelmed with the number of requests, and in 2006 they only began accepting cases from Washington.

About 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing to date, including 18 who served time on death row, according to the Innocence Project’s website. Eyewitness misidentification, invalidated or improper forensic science and false confessions are some of the issues related to the wrongful convictions, the group says.

The AIP has about 65 cases open that it’s investigating. They filed their first court case seeking to establish innocence in April 2009, for Gregory Marino who was convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1994. That case is still pending as the group tries to raise money — at least $20,000 — for DNA testing.

The AIP has helped work one local case, that of Newton Patrick Lambert who is currently seeking relief through DNA testing. Lambert was convicted of killing a Juneau woman in 1983, but he has maintained his innocence and is asking for a judge to grant his request for DNA testing. The state has opposed the request, saying that the testing is irrelevant given other evidence that tied Lambert to the crime.

The AIP tracked down the DNA evidence to see if it was still being preserved by a lab decades after the fact, which it was. The state, however, took issue with the integrity of the evidence and its chain of custody. The judge has yet to rule on the case.

The AIP has yet to exonerate someone, although Oberly notes the average innocence case takes 12 years, according to Centurion Ministries, another nonprofit that helps with wrongful convictions. The average cost for one of Centurion Ministries cases is more than $300,000, Oberly said.

AIP is hoping to raise money to help with operating costs and case costs, which can include the cost of DNA testing, fingerprint testing and hiring investigators to help track down witnesses.

AIP operates on a $100,000 budget (which does not include case costs). It receives financial assistance through state and federal grants, but the largest share of its budget comes from individual donations.

There’s not one particular case for which the group is fundraising, Oberly said.

“It all goes into the same pot,” he said.

The documentary “Central Park Five” will play at 7 p.m. at The Gold Town Nickelodeon theatre, 171 Shattuck Way, and the fundraiser will be begin at 9 p.m. at Rockwell, 109 S. Franklin St, the old Elk’s Building. There is a suggested $10 to $50 donation.

For more information about the Alaska Innocence Project, visit alaskainnocence.org. For more information about “The Central Park Five,” admission prices and other show times, visit goldtownnick.com

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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