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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

New Conviction Integrity Unit will try to right wrongs

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Kendrick Morris had just finished reading his Bible at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility when a correction officer walked by to take a head count.

She asked if Morris had been praying. He said yes.

“Well, pack your stuff,” she told him. “You’re out of here.”

It was Aug. 10, 2020. Morris kept believing the day was coming when he would be released from prison, where he maintained his innocence for 18 years.

Morris was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated battery and unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon in 2002 after a 13-year-old girl identified him as one of the people who shot her through a screen door at her home in April 2001. Morris was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In 2015, the girl said a detective pressured her into identifying Morris as one of the shooters, and Morris filed a petition arguing her statement warranted a new trial. An appeals court decided the girl’s new testimony failed a nine-part test, including that it would “probably produce a different result at retrial,” so his sentence was upheld.

Morris’ attorney, Fran Watson, who started the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University’s law school, then went to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, which helped get Morris out of prison with a sentence modification.

“That whole day was surreal,” Morris said of the day he was released. “I always knew it was coming.”

The fact is Morris, now 44 years old, wasn’t the only person sitting behind bars because of a wrongful conviction. Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears knows there are others. The hard part is finding them and then mounting enough evidence to convince the court to exonerate that person.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office will soon have a team dedicated to doing that work through the Conviction Integrity Unit, which will include an attorney, investigator and paralegal. People will be able to submit referrals for the unit to consider, starting this year.

“If there’s something out there, we want to know about it,” Mears said.

There will also be an advisory board that the Conviction Integrity Unit will report to quarterly, Mears said. Those reports will include why the unit did or didn’t pursue certain cases.

The Conviction Integrity Unit will try to get exonerations, meaning the court vacates the conviction. The easiest example of that happening would be if there was DNA evidence to show the person convicted didn’t actually commit the crime, though that can still be a lengthy process. Morris’ sentence modification means he is still technically a convicted felon, and he has two years of non-reporting probation.

If the Conviction Integrity Unit works the way it should, that would likely mean African Americans would see the biggest benefit.

Almost half of known exonerations since 1989 — 2,708 in total — have been for African Americans, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan law school. That’s partly because African Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder if the victim was white.

“It justifies why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Rev. David Greene, who leads Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis and became an advocate for Morris. He and Watson worked with Mears to launch the Conviction Integrity Unit because of what happened to Morris.

Based on other similarly sized units around the country, Mears estimated the unit could receive 60 to 80 referrals per year and investigate 15 to 20. The pace depends on how much information the unit has to work with from the referral, as well as how quickly the unit can interview witnesses, review trial transcripts and do everything else that goes into an investigation.

Watson said one of the big benefits with an integrity unit is it can go through the discovery process without filing another lawsuit, which the court may not agree to hear.

Integrity units are a good line of defense, Watson said, especially once it becomes apparent the court doesn’t want to revisit a case anymore.

“You wouldn’t need a unit to check integrity if all the convictions had integrity,” she said.

Morris, who went to Fort Wayne after his release but has since moved to Indianapolis for a job in Greenfield, said he thinks there are “a lot” of innocent people behind bars. He blames a criminal justice system that emphasizes wins and losses for attorneys rather than prioritizing justice.

“They’ll try to fit a round peg into a square hole,” he said.

Morris said he’d like to get an exoneration and compensation for the time he did in prison, but he also knows what it means to be patient and persistent.

His goal is to start a trucking company because it’s a trade that tends to be friendlier for people with criminal records. Morris said his long-term vision is to be of service to others.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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