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Innocence Project Honors 100th Freed Inmate

Courts: Larry Mayes, who served 21 years in an Indiana prison for rape, was cleared by DNA. 'I'm just hurt. I'm not angry,' he says.

January 19, 2002|From Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — For 21 years, Larry Mayes served time in an Indiana prison for a crime he did not commit. His father, daughter and brother all died as he maintained his innocence.

On Friday, three weeks after DNA testing cleared his name, the 52-year-old celebrated his return to civilian life while the Innocence Project, which worked to secure his release, marked the 100th time it has freed an innocent person.

"I always knew I was innocent. It was just a matter of time until I could get someone to listen to me," he said.

Mayes' comments came at the start of a three-day conference on the so-called innocence movement--an effort supported by a coalition of about 30 groups to investigate allegations of wrongful convictions and push for reform of the justice system.

Since the first Innocence Project was founded a decade ago by defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the number of overturned convictions has steadily increased. More than 20 people were cleared last year.

Still, Neufeld and others said they believe that the number of people exonerated represents a fraction of those wrongly held, who could number in the thousands.

"We're here today to declare that there are innocent people in prison, and we're here to talk about what we need to do about it," said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law, where the conference is being held.

Overturning a conviction is difficult. Cases are typically reviewed by volunteer attorneys, who receive more claims than they can handle. In about three-fourths of cases, key evidence is lost or has been destroyed. In others, there is no DNA to analyze.

To reduce the number of false convictions, attorneys at the conference support such measures as eliminating witness lineups, which can produce false identifications, and requiring police interviews to be videotaped.

Lost evidence nearly thwarted Mayes' release. Convicted in 1980 for raping a woman at an Indiana gas station, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

He contacted the Innocence Project in the late 1990s after learning about the group on a television talk show.

Law students who took up his case were repeatedly told that a rape kit from the case was lost. When the evidence eventually resurfaced, DNA testing cleared Mayes.

He was released Dec. 21 and works as a dishwasher at a truck stop.

"I'm just hurt. I'm not angry," he said.

Marvin Anderson had a similar story. The African American man was found guilty in 1982 of raping a white woman in Hanover County, Va.

An all-white jury convicted him based on a single eyewitness, even though he had an alibi. During his 15-year incarceration, another inmate came forward to admit that he had committed the crime, but a judge refused to believe him. DNA evidence proved Anderson's innocence in December, making him the Innocence Project's 99th exoneration.

"It feels wonderful," he said of having his name cleared.

"It's a blessing I was waiting for."

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