More than 4,000 people have asked a small Atlanta-based legal advocacy group to take a look at their criminal convictions with hopes of proving their innocence through DNA evidence.
Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project, told Friday's Law Day luncheon crowd at the Gainesville Civic Center that her tiny two-person office is currently reviewing 200 cases, including one from Hall County. Since 2004, the office has accepted 28 cases and exonerated five men.
"These people are innocent — there's not a ‘not guilty' aspect to it," Maxwell said. "The great thing about this data is it's encouraging criminal justice professionals and scientists to look at other forms of evidence that we use in criminal cases."
Just a few years ago, so-called "touch DNA" was not widely considered a viable form of evidence, Maxwell said. Use of the method in the JonBenet Ramsey case helped change those attitudes, she said. Last year, Maxwell's office used the analysis of skin cells left behind on a cell phone and article of clothing to clear a Georgia man in a carjacking case.
"We sent an innocent man to prison with DNA available to be tested," Maxwell said. "That's not OK."
The Georgia Innocence project is an offshoot of the original Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, attorneys best known for their representation of O.J. Simpson. Since its founding, more than 50 satellite Innocence Projects have formed worldwide, and at last count 249 people were exonerated of crimes through DNA evidence.
The Georgia Innocence Project relies on private donations and volunteer work from law school students.
Maxwell said estimates vary widely as to how many people behind bars may truly be innocent.
"The truth is we don't know," she said. "The bottom line is if there's one innocent person in prison, that's really not OK. And we need to do what we can to make sure that doesn't happen in the future."
Also at Friday's luncheon, two people were honored by the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Bar Association for their service and contributions to the local judicial system.
Marilyn Davis, founder of a residential substance abuse treatment center for women, was presented the Liberty Bell award. William A. "Dub" Bagwell, a longtime Gainesville attorney and active member of community organizations, received the Judge A.R. Kenyon award.
Davis started North House in 1990 and has worked closely with court officials.
"For 20 years, Marilyn has been a driving force in helping thousands of addicts shattered by drug abuse lead better lives," presenter Graham McKinnon said. "Marilyn's passion is on display every single day."
Bagwell is a senior partner at Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard & Walker. In addition to his work as a civil litigation attorney, Bagwell has been active in the Gainesville State College Foundation, Chattahoochee District Boy Scouts of America, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, United Way and other organizations.
Presenter Tom Cole cited Bagwell as a mentor who was as committed to his family and community as his profession.
"I don't know if I deserve this," Bagwell said in accepting the award. "All I've been doing for the past 46 years is what I wanted to do — what I enjoyed doing."