- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
As hard as police and court workers try, sometimes innocent people go to jail.
Established in 1992, the New York-based nonprofit organization The Innocence Project seeks to foster awareness and provide assistance for those who have been wrongly imprisoned. By providing attorneys for the wrongfully imprisoned and using DNA to prove innocence, the organization has recently seen its 300th successful exoneration, College of Southern Maryland students learned at a presentation Thursday.
For the group’s senior advocate Katie Monroe, the subject of wrongful conviction holds personal significance: Monroe’s mother was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1992 and served 10 years in prison before being proven innocent, which Monroe assisted with.
However, cases like her mother’s that end happily are far from the norm.
“The vast majority don’t have this benefit ... most will never be able to right the wrongs,” Monroe said. “When the wrong person is in jail, the right one isn’t.”
Rather than seeking to overturn every conviction, Monroe emphasized the need to reform the system to ensure that it occurs less often. Many of the group’s cases have come about as a result of factors including mistaken witness identification, false confessions and flawed forensic evidence. Other times, it comes down to factors as simple but devastating as a mishandling of the case on the lawyer’s part.
“The system doesn’t seem to fix itself. ... It’s difficult to reopen courtroom doors once closed,” Monroe said. “It’s fallible. ... There’s room for mistakes at every single level.”
While Monroe has handled cases of this nature firsthand, Scott Hornoff has lived through the ordeal of wrongful accusation and imprisonment.
While working as a detective in his native Rhode Island, Hornoff found himself the prime suspect in the 1989 murder of a woman with whom he had at one point had an extramarital affair. Although Hornoff and the woman had parted amicably, he found himself under suspicion when she was found bludgeoned to death.
“I’d seen a lot of bad crimes ... but this was the first time I’d ever known anyone who had been murdered,” Hornoff said. “I had to sit down when I found out. It hit me right in the gut.”
After the woman’s death, Hornoff was questioned by his department, and his captain told him he was cleared of any suspicion. That was the last Hornoff heard in depth about the murder until 1992, when two journalists came to his door to ask him his feelings on being considered the prime suspect in her death.
“It was like a second sledgehammer to the gut when I found that out,” Hornoff said. “On one hand, I was fairly confident that I’d be cleared of this. ... I knew that I was innocent, and I thought they’d see that.”
Hornoff was brought in for questioning once more, and by the time his case went to trial, his confidence waned.
“I braced myself ... just because I knew her, they could have targeted me,” Hornoff said. “I should have looked into it as a cop and investigated it myself. The prosecutor only has to get the jury to dislike you, and because of my infidelity, that was easy enough for him.”
When convicted and put in prison in 1996, Hornoff found himself among people he’d helped put away while on the police force. Almost immediately upon arrival, he began looking for ways to fight his case and prove his innocence. After an initial hearing request was denied, Hornoff contacted the New York Innocence Project, which eventually put him in touch with lawyers from the New England Innocence Project. Ultimately, the attention Hornoff gained from fighting his case led the real murderer, the woman’s then-boyfriend, to confessing to the crime. In 2002, Scott Hornoff was exonerated by corroborating DNA evidence and became a free man.
“To survive in there, you adopt a philosophy of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ and I just didn’t believe it,” Hornoff said. “It’s been kind of like surviving a war ... how did I get out when so many others didn’t?”
Since being released, Hornoff has made television appearances and is among the subjects of a 2005 documentary called “After Innocence” that details the struggles of Hornoff and six other men against a system stacked against them. Despite his ordeal, Hornoff retains faith in the American legal system.
“I’m still very much pro-law enforcement,” Hornoff said. “Just as I feel the innocent should be protected, I feel the guilty should be prosecuted.”
CSM program coordinator for the Institutional Equity and Diversity Office Jennifer Van Cory felt that, when selecting programs to bring to campus, The Innocence Project presented unique viewpoints.
“Our goal was to educate participants about the role that a grass roots, public policy/advocacy organization has played in the lives of so many,” Van Cory said in a follow-up email. “The Innocence Project is a tangible example of how individuals can advocate for change and can also receive justice. ... We were able to garner a very diverse audience.”
For Maria Musgrove of Cobb Island, attending the event was something of a wake-up call.
“It’s very scary that people in positions of power sometimes use that power to not do the right thing,” Musgrove said. “This is something that I think is really important. ... Someone has to stand up. If this can happen to a member of law enforcement, then it can happen to anyone. What happens to someone who doesn’t have the resources? It’s scary.”