The Arizona Justice Project oversees several integrated programs aimed at freeing the innocent and wrongfully convicted in the Arizona Corrections System.
Arizona DNA Advocacy Project
The Arizona Justice Project (AJP) is currently implementing a grant from the National Institute of Justice to investigate post-conviction cases where testing DNA evidence could show innocence. This program is a joint effort between ASU College of Law, UofA College of Law, and the AJP.
The application of DNA analysis to criminal cases in Arizona began in the mid-1990s. Cases prior to that time did not have the benefit of DNA evidence.
Since that time, DNA testing technology has evolved. Where labs used to require a quarter size of semen, blood, or saliva to get a DNA profile, now the technology can identify skin cells that are invisible to the human eye and obtain a full DNA profile. The advancements in this technology have led to hundreds of exonerations across the country.
DNA testing helps exonerate the wrongly convicted and assists public safety by identifying true perpetrators. Many of the cases we review are decades old and the evidence has never been subjected to DNA analysis.
We face numerous hurdles in locating the physical evidence for DNA testing. Many defendants are not aware of what biological evidence exists from their case and are not current with advancements in DNA analysis.
Our job is to identify cases where DNA evidence is probative to determining who committed the crime, locate the evidence items, access the evidence through a court order or consent by the prosecution, submit the evidence for DNA analysis, and where DNA results point to innocence, seek to overturn the conviction.
Manifest Injustice Case Review and Litigation
The Arizona Justice Project reviews and litigates cases where a manifest injustice occurred.
Cases under this program include issues involving:
- Juvenile brain development
- Battered woman’s syndrome
- Excessive sentencing
- Perinatal mood disorders
- Imminent danger of death
The Arizona Justice Project (AJP) continues its effort to identify and assist juvenile offenders sentenced to life or natural life in prison and acts as a clearinghouse for lawyers who represent juvenile lifers in state and federal court or before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.
We advocate for the elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in Arizona and have given presentations on this topic to the Arizona Juvenile Justice Commission. We have also provided information to law makers for future policy reform and legislation.
We believe a sentence of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole or a sentence of de facto life for a juvenile offender is a manifest injustice. After Miller v. Alabama was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 2012, which held mandatory-life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, we began to identify juvenile offenders in Arizona who we believed were entitled to relief under Miller.
Since then, we have assisted many of those individuals:
- file the appropriate paperwork in the court system
- supported their claims with amicus briefs
- collaborated with many other organizations on these issues
AJP has always been concerned about juvenile offenders serving life sentences, especially in light of scientific evidence that the adolescent brain is not fully developed. This research was the basis for the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller and other cases involving juvenile offenders.
Non-DNA Case Review and Litigation
The Arizona Justice Project reviews and litigates cases where a wrongful conviction occurred but DNA evidence is not available for testing or would not be dispositive of innocence.
Cases under this program could include convictions that rest on witness misidentification, outdated or flawed forensic science, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, or government misconduct.
Prosecutorial misconduct occurs when a prosecutor breaks a law or a code of professional ethics in the course of a prosecution. Prosecutors have unique accountability because they:
- Are entrusted with determining who will be held accountable when a crime occurs.
- Work with police to gather evidence and build a case against a suspect with the goal of convincing a jury of the suspect’s guilt.
- Are charged as the administrators of justice and hold a great deal of power.
In certain instances, prosecutors overstepped their boundaries when they:
- failed to disclose exculpatory evidence
- presented witnesses that testified falsely
- exercised the power of prosecution in a vindictive manner
Numerous people have been wrongly convicted or have lost custody of their children based on a diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a hypothesis that a triad of medical findings (brain swelling, brain bleed, and retinal hemorrhage) are caused almost exclusively by violent shaking or similar acceleration/deceleration forces.
SBS proponents believe SBS can be reliably diagnosed even if the baby shows no outward signs of abuse, such as bruises, grip marks, or neck injuries, and even if the caretaker provides an explanation such as longstanding medical problems, recent illness, or accidental trauma (such as a household fall).
SBS rapidly went from merely a hypothesis about one possible cause of unexplained intracranial injury in babies to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that shaking is almost always the only possible cause of such injuries.
However, experts in the medical and scientific community have begun to question whether SBS findings can reliably distinguish between intentional and accidental trauma, and whether shaking is even capable of causing the symptoms that – for 30 years – have been equated with violent shaking.
Notably, we are now aware that numerous medical conditions, illness, and even an accidental short fall can produce the triad findings and are not caused from shaking but rather are the result of natural or accidental occurrences. The Arizona Justice Project takes on these cases due to the concern that SBS has not been adequately validated and, in being over diagnosed, has snared up innocent people in the process.
The purpose of a fire investigation is to determine whether a fire was accidental or intentional.
Until recently, arson cases often relied on now widely discredited methods of fire cause analysis. Early fire investigations were based on apprentice-based teaching by investigators experienced in fire analysis or firefighting. This knowledge was largely based on observation and intuition and not actual science, and there were no consistent requirements for what types of science background or educational background an investigator was required to have.
Within the past few years, the effects of a failed appreciation of basic fire science by apparently experienced fire investigators have led to cases in which misconduct was demonstrated.
In the past few years, three Phoenix Fire Department investigators have been under scrutiny for their conduct while investigating arson cases.