BILLINGS – Larry Mansch was back and forth from the Missoula County jail, having meetings with a man who had just learned that a judge overturned his homicide conviction.
Mansch’s work can include counseling inmates, some of whom weren’t supposed to be in prison in the first place.
Recently, he was talking to Robert Wilkes, who was convicted in 2009 for the death of his 3-month-old son.
The Montana Innocence Project, of which Mansch is the legal director, began looking into Wilkes’ case in 2012. They pursued the case through favorable appeals to the Montana Supreme Court and back to the district court in Ravalli County, where a judge overturned the conviction on June 28.
The ruling came down just as the organization marked its 10th anniversary. Wilkes could be the seventh exoneration for the Project, and the six others have come in recent years.
The work in those early years is just beginning to show.
“Most of our cases I’ve described today, we opened in 2010 or 2012,” he said. “It’s a really gratifying experience.”
The Montana Innocence Project began in 2008 when former reporter Jessie McQuillan and then-state Sen. Dan Weinberg joined to follow the Barry Beach case.
Beach’s case was perhaps the most notable conviction challenge in Montana. He spent 30 years in prison for the 1979 killing of Kimberly Nees in Poplar.
That case didn’t end in exoneration. Gov. Steve Bullock granted clemency to Beach in 2015.
But it sparked enough interest to found the Montana Innocence Project, which is a relative of the national organization that pursues legal remedies to wrongful convictions.
Over the past decade, the Project relied largely on volunteer labor to sift through hundreds of requests, research cases and bring a select few back to court.
“We’ve opened almost 800 files,” Mansch said. “We’ve only accepted about a dozen for litigation, and that’s because our burden is so high.”
Successful reversals include the homicide convictions of two men who were serving lifetime sentences in Jefferson County and a man convicted of a 2002 rape in Missoula, Cody Marble.
One client, Dale Hanson, lost a bid to reverse his conviction. Hanson had already finished his prison sentence for sexual assault by the time of his appeal and was avoiding law enforcement and offender registration.
Exoneration is tough work, and it has to be credible to have success, said Montana Innocence Project board member Paul McLean.
A former federal probation officer out of Billings, McLean joined the board at the request of his friend, Mansch. If justice is the ultimate goal, McLean said the reversal of wrongful convictions should play a part.
“If one person is vindicated, exonerated, is it worth years of work?” he said. “I would say I think so. How do you put a value on that?”
The key in reversing a wrongful conviction is that the evidence needs to be new.
Mansch said a judge will throw out an appeal if a jury has already ruled on the same set of evidence.
Sometimes, the evidence is technological. Newly tested DNA evidence helped to exonerate Freddie Lawrence and Paul Jenkins in the Jefferson County case. That process led investigators to another suspect in the case, 24 years after the murder.
Mansch said they’ve also encountered police misconduct, false confessions, poor defense attorneys and “snitch” testimony against the accused — all of which can be factors in appealing a conviction.
He said the most common is misidentification.
“We have eyewitness misidentification, where people are sure they saw or heard something and they’re just wrong,” Mansch said.
Often it’s a combination of things, and case evidence isn’t always perfect. All the work of law enforcement and prosecutors might come down to a jury’s judgment call amid “he-said-she-said” testimony.
It’s a human system, said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. Because of that, he said a measured approach by an organization like the Montana Innocence Project should be welcomed.
“The concept of what they represent does mean a lot,” he said. “You talk to most prosecutors, none of them want to make a mistake and send an innocent person to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”
Wrongful convictions typically get wide attention in the media and public, and Twito cautioned against the perception that they’re common.
The Project sends so few cases to appeal, which to Twito shows how often the normal process gets convictions and acquittals right.
“I think the Innocence Project does good work,” he said. “But it’s also reflective of how we do in the criminal justice system in America.”
The Montana Innocence Project enlisted volunteers for 3,500 hours of work last year alone.
Mansch said those volunteers are retired attorneys, probation and parole officers, journalists and others. They enlist the help of University of Montana law students as well.
It takes an average of eight years for a suitable case to reach exoneration, he said.
Their cases are few, even 10 years into the project. But Mansch said it’s enough just to know that those cases exist. And he said there are more out there.
“I think that tide is turning,” he said. “I think people are questioning the finality of verdicts and a lot of cases.”
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