After 'Making A Murderer,' Midwest Innocence Project Says People Are Eager To Help
Both the podcast Serial and Netflix documentary Making a Murderer have brought unprecedented attention to the work of organizations like the Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project.
Founded more than a decade ago at the UMKC Law School, the Project works to exonerate those people its staff believe have been wrongly convicted.
KCUR talked with the Project's Executive Director Oliver Burnette about how the recent explosion of interest in such cases has changed (and not changed) their work.
How has the popularity of 'Serial' and 'Making a Murderer' changed how the Midwest Innocence Project does its work?
More than anything, the biggest benefit we get is the general populace now has the vocabulary to discuss and understand these problems [with the criminal justice system] that have always existed. Something like eyewitness testimony. That's something most people used to think is foolproof. But we're now getting the word out that there are a lot of problems with eyewitness testimony and how unreliable it is, how it can get confused and manipulated. Now, there is a desire from the public to get it right. They're saying, "It's a problem". And they're saying that because of these shows.
Tricia Bushnell, the Legal Director for the Midwest Innocence Project, is now working on the Steven Avery case [of 'Making a Murderer' notoriety]. How did she get wrapped up in that?
Tricia came from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and she has a great pedigree in this type of work. She is well-known and respected here and in Wisconsin and, frankly, around the nation. She has maintained her Wisconsin Bar license, so she has been able to assist Kathleen Zellner as local counsel.
'Making a Murderer' has its critics: they say it's too subjective, that it crosses an advocacy line. Your own organization uses the media frequently to get word out about cases. Is the media attention a two-edged sword?
The first and foremost duty is to our clients. Many times, that means we're not talking to the press and doing things that nobody knows about. The 'Making a Murderer' series has brought to light all the work that goes into these cases that takes weeks, months, years, and unfortunately, sometimes decades. It can absolutely be a two-edge sword, but I only want to see the good.
A case of more local prominence is that of Floyd Bledsoe in Kansas. He had been convicted of murder and spent more than 15 years in jail. Because of evidence that came to light that your organization put together, he was recently exonerated and released. How has that case impacted the current Kansas legislative session?
Floyd has been testifying a lot these days, really throwing himself into these issues like videotaping confessions, exoneration compensation, eyewitness testimony. It's amazing he has that personality to do such good after something that horrible happened. I mean videotaped confession: we have the technology nowadays, so why not take advantage of it? With a videotaped confession, we can get it right and make sure nothing goes wrong, and try to avoid these problems of having someone in jail for decades for a crime they didn't commit.
You know there are so many points along an investigation where something can go wrong or something warrants another look. And I used to think once a judgment was rendered, you know, it was so definitive...
It's because we want to trust the justice system. There is a lot of trust we put into judges, prosecutors, or investigators. It's really disconcerting when you see that trust broken, not if something went wrong by a horrible mistake but by something nefarious. That's where the ground swell of support is coming from, people want to make sure we don't have an individual prosecutor or a bad eyewitness manipulate the system. When we get it wrong and falsely convict someone, for that time — and in Floyd's case it was 15 years — for that 15 years someone is out there who did commit the crime. Who doesn't want to get it right? Nobody is for the wrong person in jail.
This conversation has been edited for length and style.
Kyle Palmer is a former teacher. He is now KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle.