Multiple people convicted in North Dakota but who claim to be innocent could have their cases presented to the Great North Innocence Project as soon as this month.
They will be the first cases brought before the Innocence Project's North Dakota Committee since it was formed last winter, said Adam Martin, the Fargo-based chairman of the committee. The committee will be tasked with deciding which cases the Great North Innocence Project will accept.
"I'm of the mindset that I would rather let 10 people go free that are guilty than one person to serve life in prison that's innocent," said Martin, also the founder of the F5 project, a nonprofit that works to help formerly incarcerated people transition back into society. "I mean, that's horrible. That's how you know the system doesn't work, if we're sending innocent people to prison."
The Great North Innocence Project, based in Minneapolis, is one chapter of a national organization that works to overturn convictions of people who have been wrongfully convicted.
According to Sara Jones, executive director of the Great North Innocence Project, anywhere from 2% to 10% of incarcerated people in the U.S. are estimated to be innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted.
"So, we know from history that these cases exist," she said. "Let's say North Dakota has maybe 3,000 people at most in prison. Say 5% of those people might be innocent. That's a pretty significant number."
The Great North Innocence Project was founded in 2001, and has taken cases in North Dakota before, most notably the case of Richard LaFuente, who was convicted of killing a police officer on the Spirit Lake Reservation in 1983. The Great North Innocence Project took on his case in 2003, and in 2014, a decision to deny LaFuente parole was reversed. He was released from prison after 28 years.
After receiving a grant last year, Jones said the organization was able to more formally expand into the Dakotas. The North Dakota committee is made up of representatives from local law enforcement, federal offices, state's attorney offices, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the ACLU, Altru Health, UND and the Legislature.
Since the committee was formed, the Great North Innocence Project has begun accepting applications. The bar for accepting a case is high, Jones said. First, she said, the person must be innocent – not just innocent on a technicality, but innocent in the sense that they had nothing to do with the crime of which they were found guilty. Second, they must have some kind of evidence to prove they're innocent.
The North Dakota Committee meets quarterly, and the upcoming April meeting will be the second time the group has convened, Martin said. He believes that's when the cases will be presented to the committee for the first time.
Jones said the process is lengthy, but she believes the work is important.
"As a lawyer, but also just as a person, one hopes that the criminal justice system is as fair as it can possibly be," she said. "I think one of the worst mistakes our system can make is convicting an innocent person. It means that somebody innocent has their freedom taken away from them for no good reason."