The Midwest Innocence Project hopes to attract more attention for questionable conviction cases now that one of its lawyers has joined the new legal team for Steven Avery of Making a Murderer. The Netflix series questions Avery’s murder conviction after the Wisconsin man previously spent 18 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him of rape.
“What the Making a Murderer series has been great for is opening people's eyes to this need to find justice,” said Oliver Burnette, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.
Burnette is speaking on behalf of Midwest Innocence Project Legal Director Tricia Bushnell while she works on Avery’s case.
“Tricia came from the Wisconsin Innocence Project before she came to us here,” Burnette said, “She still maintains fantastic relationships with the Wisconsin Innocence Project and a Wisconsin active bar license.”
Bushnell is working with Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner who helped free Missouri native Ryan Ferguson in 2013 from his wrongful murder conviction.
The Midwest Innocence Project helped free Floyd Bledsoe of Oskaloosa, Kan., last month after pushing for DNA tests.
“We're able to show that he absolutely did not have anything to do with the murder that he spent 16 years of his life in for,” Burnette said.
Thousands of wrongful convictions
The Midwest Innocence Project investigates questionable convictions in five states: Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Arkansas.
“A false conviction rate, which some people say is between 4 and as high as 7 percent, that means there could be 6,000 people today in that five-state area that are in jail for crimes they absolutely did not commit,” Burnette said.
Possibly thousands of innocent people are locked up, but Midwest Innocence Project can only help some of them because it relies on donations.
Costs to fight convictions
“All these cases are complicated. All these cases take a long time, some of them take seven to 10 years to do, and they cost us about $325,000 on average per case,” Burnette said. "We have 600 clients on our wait list. We're only in litigation with nine, so this is what we deal with. We are buried in it every day."
Burnette hopes the work Bushnell is doing on the Making a Murderer case also brings attention to other questionable convictions.
“It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime,” said Burnette.
Dateline NBC will air an hour-long special on the Steven Avery Making a Murderer case Friday at 9 p.m. CST on 41 Action News.
Patrick Fazio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .