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A casual inquiry from a part-time Georgia State law school instructor to then-student Jill G. Polster led her and fellow student September Guy on a three-year mission: to create a Georgia Innocence Project. This fall, thanks to Polster and Guy and a group of veteran criminal defense lawyers, Georgia will get its own version of the New York City-based defense project. Georgia’s Innocence Project will join similar projects in more than 30 states. The national Innocence Project was founded in 1992 at the Cardozo School of Law and claims 104 exonerations, most of them established with the use of DNA testing. Georgia’s project is set to begin. Funding is in place, a new Web site is up, letters already are arriving from inmates seeking help and, last month, the board of directors had its first meeting. The board includes a lineup of well-known lawyers: Bobby Lee Cook, Edward T.M. Garland, Stephen B. Bright, Emmet J. Bondurant, Jimmy D. Berry, John R. Martin, William C. “Bubba” Head, Brooks S. Franklin, Randolph G. Rich, Christine A. Koehler, Linda S. Sheffield, Alex L. Zipperer, Polster and Guy. Polster said she became interested in the idea after Rich, a Lawrenceville attorney who teaches part time at Georgia State, asked if anyone in Georgia was working on such a project. “I’ll ask around,” Polster said she remembered telling Rich. Polster and Guy did more than just ask around. They attended meetings of the National Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (where they met defense lawyer Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Cardozo project) and meetings of the Georgia Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. They visited Cardozo and Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions & the Death Penalty. Polster and Guy “took the ball and ran with it,” said Rich, of Rich & Smith. “It’s incredible the way they’ve gotten support.” Guy, now in private practice in Rossville, Ga., said that after the March 28 inaugural meeting of the board she drove back to her northwest Georgia office “grinning from ear to ear” all the way. Polster is now an assistant public defender in Fulton County. One Georgia man was freed in 1999 with the help of the national Innocence Project. Calvin C. Johnson Jr., sentenced to life in prison for a 1983 rape, walked out of the Clayton County courthouse a free man. New tests on the original DNA evidence proved that Johnson couldn’t be the man who raped and sodomized a woman on March 8, 1983, at her College Park home. Johnson won a new trial and Clayton prosecutors then dismissed the case. TWO SAVANNAH CASES EXAMINED The national project is working on two Savannah cases. In one, project lawyers argue that DNA evidence exonerates two men who already have served prison terms for a 1986 rape. A motion for a new trial in that case, according to the Savannah Morning News, is pending before Chatham County Superior Court Judge Michael L. Karpf. The newspaper also says project lawyers want to see if there is sufficient DNA for testing in a 1985 murder and rape. “If there are two in Savannah,” said Polster, “there must be 200″ such cases around the state. Polster said Smith, Gambrell & Russell volunteered to handle nonprofit status and tax paperwork for the Georgia Project. The State Bar of Georgia put up a challenge grant, which the project organizers soon matched. Polster and Guy said they were moved when, while visiting Cardozo last year, a newly freed Texas man, Christopher Ochoa, arrived at the legal clinic to thank a tearful group of students who had helped him win exoneration from a 1988 murder conviction. HEART OF THE MODEL The heart of the Innocence Project model, according to Polster, is the law students who investigate the cases. Students initiate the process by sorting through prisoner mail, looking for suitable cases. Typical cases are those in which DNA testing might make a difference, or cases involving questionable eyewitness identification, possible prosecutorial misconduct or the use of questionable science. Polster said students who commit to the Georgia Project will work two semesters or a summer. “There is no comparable experience in law school,” she said. “If you really want to know how the justice system works in the state of Georgia, working for the Innocence Project will do that.” To read more on Georgia’s Innocence Project, go to www.ga-innocenceproject.org.

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