Innocence Project finds Godsey
Godsey gave it all up to move back to his hometown in Cincinnati for a criminal law professorship. Because he knew such positions only become available every 10 years or so, he grabbed the area’s first opening at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon Chase College of Law.
What he did not expect to grab was the Kentucky Innocence Project. “The professor who had supervised it was taking a sabbatical,” Godsey recalls, “and I think they asked me to take it over because of my investigative background from being a prosecutor.”
He said “yes,” but still clung to a serious skepticism, reinforced the day students excitedly returned from meeting a prisoner, whom they claimed to know was innocent by the look in his eyes. “The look in his eyes?” he questions. “I was cynical, and I still am, about being able to tell innocence by looking in someone’s eyes.”
It did turn out he was innocent, and as time went on, Godsey admits, “I had my eyes opened to the reality of wrongful convictions of innocent people.”
In 2003, the UC College of Law needed a criminal law professor, and he packed his books. He also grew excited when he met people who had been working with the dean trying to create the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP).
Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley and Godsey ended up co-founding the OIP with others that year. Soon Lois Rosenthal, Bus ’60, HonDoc ’08, and her husband, Richard, HonDoc ’08, began giving gifts that would total more than $2.5 million to endow the Rosenthal Institute for Justice and support the OIP.
Most states have an Innocence Project, usually located at a major law school, which is how the organization started. Ohio’s only Innocence Project is at UC, where the staff normally comprises director Godsey, two full-time staff attorneys, one part-time attorney, one administrative director and 16 to 20 students (called fellows), who work full time in the summer and part time during the school year, primarily conducting research to identify Ohio inmates who are innocent.
“I worked on 40 or so cases, looking for evidence,” says Matt Katz, JD ’11, who chose UC because of the Ohio Innocence Project. “We also tried to keep up inmates’ spirits with phone calls and visits.”
He remembers a 2010 visit with inmate Raymond Towler at the Grafton Correctional Institution two months before Towler was exonerated. “His court date was that close, and I still wasn’t sure if we had the evidence we needed.
“He remained upbeat, but was getting frustrated because he had been down the road several times over nearly 30 years in prison. It was hard for me to leave him that day not knowing what would happen.”
Katz is now a public defender in Indianapolis. “The one thing from OIP that I use every day is the realization of how precious the investigation is. I look under a lot of rocks that I normally wouldn’t have looked under, but I know some piece of evidence is going to be found in a place no one would have expected. That is where we found evidence in the Ohio Innocence Project.”
Approximately 50 students apply annually for a one-year OIP commitment, but OIP attorneys can only oversee 20 at a time, says administrative director Jodi Shorr. The workload is heavy in that thousands of inmates have reached out for OIP assistance in the last 10 years, she says.
Consequently, the staff is very selective in taking cases. All clients go through extensive screening to determine if innocence seems likely and if enough new evidence would warrant a new trial.