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Montana convicts and incarcerates innocent people. It must stop.

by Frank Knaack

(Originally published by the Missoulian)

One hundred fifty-two. That’s the number of years that wrongfully convicted people in Montana have spent incarcerated since 1989.

That’s likely the tip of the iceberg. In the past three years alone, the Montana Innocence Project has helped to exonerate six people who spent a combined 95 years in Montana’s prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.

Today is Wrongful Conviction Day. People around the world are raising awareness about wrongful convictions and the harms to individuals and families that accompany every wrongful conviction.

Thanks to advocacy and reporting, more people are learning about the injustices in our criminal justice systems — injustices that disproportionately harm people of color and Indigenous people, and injustices that too often send innocent people to prison.

The six exonerees we served provide irrefutable proof that Montana convicts and incarcerates innocent people. Through our legal work, we have identified systemic failures that undermine the integrity of Montana’s criminal justice system. These injustices are well known to prosecutors and law enforcement. Yet, they continue to exist.

That’s why the Montana Innocence Project is expanding its work. While we continue to provide free legal representation to wrongfully convicted people, we are also stepping up our work to build a just, fair and accurate criminal justice system in Montana — a system that recognizes that one wrongfully convicted person is one too many.

Here are three concrete ways to make our justice system more just, more fair, and more accurate:

First: Require safeguards to protect against false testimony from jailhouse informants. Jailhouse informants are often given leniency or other benefits in exchange for their testimony. This provides a strong motivation for them to lie. Jailhouse informants played a role in four of Montana’s 14 proven wrongful convictions.

Second: Update Montana’s post-conviction relief law to ensure individuals have a meaningful opportunity to overturn wrongful convictions based on newly discovered non-DNA evidence. New non-DNA evidence — which could include a confession by the real perpetrator or advances in science that discredit forensic evidence used in a conviction — has been the basis for the majority of exonerations in Montana. Under current law it is extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted people to get back to court with new non-DNA evidence.

Third: Reduce the use of pretrial detention. Sixty-one percent of people in Montana’s jails have not been convicted of a crime. Most are there simply because they cannot afford bail. People incarcerated for even one day can lose their job, housing, and children. This places innocent people in the unconscionable position of having to choose between pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit just to get out of jail faster or spending weeks, months or longer incarcerated while they wait for their day to prove their innocence in court.

In recent years, these reforms have faced opposition from some prosecutors and law enforcement. This opposition must stop.

When we strengthen the integrity of our justice system we also make our communities safer. After a violent crime occurs and an innocent person is convicted, the actual perpetrator remains free. Just looking at exonerations by DNA evidence, a small subset of all exonerations, while the innocent person sat incarcerated, the actual perpetrators in those crimes went on to be convicted of 152 additional violent crimes (82 sexual assaults, 35 murders and 35 other violent crimes).

Montana must prioritize accuracy over conviction rates. That’s how we make our communities safer. Montana must ensure wrongly convicted people have an avenue to secure their exoneration. That’s how we make our communities safer.

Montana must stop incarcerating innocent people. These reforms are a step in the right direction.

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Montana’s wrongfully convicted and taxpayers deserve better deal

by Frank Knaack & David Herbst (state director, Americans for Prosperity, Montana)

(Originally published by the Billings Gazette)

The state of Montana compensates residents when it takes away their private property, but not when it unjustly takes their liberty.

In 2002, Cody Marble was convicted of a rape that never occurred and spent the better part of 14 years in the Montana prison system. As a teenager he was sent to a Missoula juvenile detention facility for five months for misdemeanor marijuana possession. There, other inmates came up with a scheme to try to get leniency in their own cases by making up a story that Cody raped one of them. Based on lies, Cody was convicted and sentenced to two decades in prison. Eventually, the victim admitted the crime was made up, and Cody was finally exonerated in 2017.

At age 23, Richard Burkhart was wrongfully convicted of blugeoning a man to death in Great Falls. Despite the fact that two other young men were found near the crime scene with a hammer and bloody clothing, Burkhart was convicted. A day after the conviction, a witness came forward to report hearing one of the original suspects confess to the crime. The prosecution violated its constitutional obligation to turn this evidence over to Burkhurt. Decades later, the Montana Innocence Project discovered the police report on the confession, and Burkhart was exonerated in 2018.

Cody and Richard will never get back the time lost with family and friends — the birthdays, holidays and everyday moments. The state also deprived them of economic opportunities. They were taken at the prime of their lives when most of their peers were building careers, purchasing assets and saving for retirement.

After exoneration, Cody and Richard’s struggles continued because the state that unjustly took their freedom has given them nothing to rebuild their lives. Nationally, 33 states and the federal government have laws to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Montana passed a law in 2003, but it is the weakest in the country because it only provides tuition assistance. The majority of other states and the federal government provide at least $50,000 for each year that the innocent person was wrongly incarcerated.

The Montana legislature has an opportunity to revisit the current law through HJ 36. Representative Joel Krautter., R-Sidney, introduced this measure calling for an interim study on exoneree compensation. It has been 16 years since the original law passed, and Montana now has the benefit of seeing what has worked successfully in other places.

Fixing the state compensation law is important for exonerees and taxpayers. Right now the only option for exonerees like Cody and Richard is to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state and local entities for their wrongful convictions. These lawsuits can take decades to resolve, leaving exonerees without any financial assistance when they first get out of prison and need the most help.

Taxpayers foot the bill for years of litigation in these cases, and if the exoneree prevails, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be rewarded.

For example, this year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a $28 million judgment against Gage County, Nebraska, for the wrongful conviction of six people in 1989. The county spent over $2 million in legal fees, and the judgment is three times the amount of its annual budget. To pay for it, a new sales tax will be imposed, and property taxes will be raised significantly, with farmers in this rural county bearing the highest burden.

Montana exonerees and taxpayers deserve a better deal. We encourage the legislature to pass House Joint Resolution 36, and to prioritize it for an interim study.

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MTIP Gets New Director and Legal Director

Missoula, MT — The Board of Directors for the Montana Innocence Project has chosen Frank Knaack as the organization’s next Executive Director. In addition, Caiti Carpenter has joined the organization as its Legal Director.

Knaack brings more than a decade of experience in designing and leading human rights advocacy campaigns to advance systemic reforms.

“Frank’s prior experiences in developing institutional improvements in the criminal justice system and fundraising means that the Montana Innocence Project will be posed to reach out further to assure that the promise of Justice for All is realized for the marginalized communities in Montana as well as those wrongfully convicted,” said Ron Waterman, Board President of the Montana Innocence Project.

Prior to joining the Montana Innocence Project, Knaack was the Executive Director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, based in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he led the creation of integrated advocacy campaigns seeking to end policing for profit and a court system funded off the backs of the poor, ensure equal access to the courts, and create a public health centered approach to drug policy. In Alabama, Knaack also co-led successful efforts to end judicial override in capital sentencing and stop Alabama sheriffs from personally profiting from jail food money.  

“I am thrilled for the opportunity to lead the Montana Innocence Project and build on its history, in the courts and at the legislature, of exonerating the innocent and preventing wrongful convictions,” said Knaack. “I am excited to work alongside our incredible staff and volunteers, committed board, pro bono partners, diverse supporters, and directly impacted community members to achieve the Montana Innocence Project’s mission.”

Earlier in his career, Knaack spent eight years with the American Civil Liberties Union and its Texas and Virginia affiliates.

Knaack received his M.A. in International Human Rights Law from The American University in Cairo (Egypt) and B.A. from the University of Vermont. He lives in Missoula with his wife and two children.    

Caiti Carpenter joined the Montana Innocence Project as its Legal Director, where she will direct the organization’s post-conviction investigations and litigation and the organization’s Innocence Clinic.

“Caiti brings an enthusiasm to the position and is motivated to build on the successes created by our prior Legal Director Larry Mansch,” said Waterman.

Prior to joining the Montana Innocence Project, Carpenter was a Whitefish-based criminal defense attorney. There she gained extensive courtroom experience trying both felonies and misdemeanors. She is also co-counsel on a post-conviction relief case with the State of Montana’s Office of the Public Defender.

“I could not be more overjoyed to dig into this work of exonerating the innocent”, said Carpenter. “As Legal Director for the Montana Innocence Project, I am honored to use my reason, morality, and passion to fight to preserve humanity by freeing innocent people from prison. In pursuing this righteous goal, how can I not want to  jump out of bed and get to the office every morning?”

Carpenter received her J.D. cum laude from The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from the University of Colorado Boulder. She lives in Missoula with her husband.