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Like many convicts, Ludrate Burton says he’s innocent. Burton is in Corcoran State Prison serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the 1994 murder of a 13-year-old San Francisco girl named Alexius McNeal. But Burton’s protestations — and some physical evidence — have created enough of a question about his conviction that the San Francisco chapter of the Northern California Innocence Project and the S.F. public defender’s office have taken on his case. The project seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted by commissioning DNA tests on biological evidence and investigating cases for evidence that may not have previously come to light. “If we get witnesses saying they saw someone else go into the house [where the murder happened] or we get existing witnesses to offer recantations, it will make the biological evidence more compelling,” said Susan Rutberg, who runs the San Francisco satellite office, located at Golden Gate University School of Law. Rutberg hopes to take advantage of a 2001 state law allowing for post-conviction DNA testing in cases like Burton’s. The law professor started the S.F. project in August 2001, and at around the same time the San Francisco public defender’s office received a grant to investigate closed cases of inmates who say they were wrongfully convicted. But despite its best efforts, the local office’s program got off to a slow start. “I did a blanket campaign, sent brochures to prison libraries and did get some letters,” said Paul Myslin, a San Francisco deputy public defender and the only person from that office working on the project. “But my focus is narrow — we only take sexual assaults and/or homicides in the city and county of San Francisco.” After Jeff Adachi was elected public defender in 2002, he called Rutberg to see if the two could work together. According to the statistics from the Northern California Innocence Project’s main office at Santa Clara University, during the past 10 years, 120 wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. have been exonerated based on post-conviction DNA testing. Deciding which cases to pursue is one of the most difficult parts of the job. “Prisoners write letters to the Innocence Project claiming they’re innocent all the time,” Rutberg said. “And sometimes they’re not innocent and sometimes it can’t be proved. We’ve rejected 30 cases this semester so far.” In addition to the 30 cases they’ve rejected, the project has another 12 they’re looking into and another 30 cases open. One of the cases that was accepted was that of Mariet Ford, a former UC-Berkeley football player who is currently in prison for life for the murder of his wife and son. The Innocence Project is also working on the case of Christopher Taylor, a man convicted of robbing banks in Santa Clara County. Rutberg said the project only takes the cases of people convicted in state court. The person must also be serving a substantial sentence, like life without parole or a third strike case. Rutberg said they do not take death penalty cases. In addition, the prisoners must be without counsel, and the case has to have gone through the appeals process. And innocence must be claimed based on factual discrepancies in the case — not innocence based on legal issues. “The students learn how to get in a case backward,” said Rutberg, describing the process of reopening investigations and searching for new and existing evidence. “When you work in the public defender’s office, the cases move forward — we’re going backward looking for new evidence that will prove the juries wrong.” Deputy PD Myslin meets with students once a week to talk about the cases. “They do most of the investigation themselves. I act as a resource for them,” he said. Since Burton’s case occurred in San Francisco, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity for a cooperative effort. In that case, a brief filed by Rutberg alleges a host of problems: There was no eyewitness to the crime. The main testifying witnesses in the case were a crack dealer and a jailhouse informant who was released after testifying. Blood drops at the scene were never typed or tested; hair found on the girl’s body did not match Burton’s hair; and fingerprints collected at the scene were not his. In her cubbyhole at Golden Gate University, Rutberg pointed to a black filing cabinet stuffed full of letters from prisoners, case files and briefs. “Here’s where everything is,” she said. Second-year law student Ed Sidawi, who is also working on Burton’s case, sat on the floor nearby and thumbed through the California Penal Code. The two are working on a motion for appointment of counsel in the Burton case. For students like Sidawi, cases such as this give them the opportunity to actually employ many of the ideas and hypothetical situations they study in the classroom. It also gives them a dose of reality. “It’s daunting in the fact that we are the only people that an inmate has that’s in their corner fighting for them,” Sidawi said. “It’s a little scary but also motivational.” Sidawi is searching for biological evidence that can be tested for Burton’s DNA. So far, the investigation has turned up blood found at the scene and a beer bottle from the house that were never tested. Working with the PD’s office has provided greater access to local courts and police evidence records. And Myslin helped identify and locate the jailhouse informant who testified against Burton so Rutberg and her students could get more information on him. “[Myslin] gets quick answers,” Sidawi said. “He’s a great resource and has a lot more access to the attorneys who represented these people in the past.” Rutberg and her students are also searching for new witnesses who might help their cause. We’ve got blood and fingerprints — but it still might not be sufficient to overturn the verdict in Burton’s case,” said Rutberg.

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