DNA just one tool to review old cases in Montana

Posted at 10:01 AM, Apr 20, 2018

MISSOULA – This week’s release of Paul Jenkins and Freddie Lawrence is one of the largest accomplishments for the Montana Innocence Project since the nonprofit started a decade ago.

And it’s certainly one of the most visible cases, making national headlines with not just one, but two men freed after more than 20 years in prison based on DNA evidence.  

But attorneys say DNA is just one tool which can be used to examine old cases, and isn’t the solution for every questionable conviction.

“You know, there are Innocence Projects that only take DNA cases," said MTIP Staff Attorney Toby Cook. "We at the Montana Innocence Project will take any case where there’s new evidence that we believe shows that the person did not commit the crime that they were convicted of.”

The attorneys say cases that come to them can be reviewed, looking for details that might need further legal analysis. And having the Innocence Project located at the University of Montana means access to a wide variety of experience and help.

“We get a lot of great interns and students from various disciplines. And so we can look at a case, and of course DNA is one of the things that we look for," Cook said. "But there’s also many other kinds of new evidence that we look for as well.”

Cook says a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is also expanding prisoners’ abilities to access nationwide DNA data bases which could help in locating other criminals that may actually be responsible for a wrongful conviction.