Chants echoed around downtown Missoula as the Montana Innocence Project conducted a walkout Friday evening.
The group paired with the non-profit Welcome Back and traveled between the University of Montana Law School and the Missoula County Courthouse, talking about the failures in the justice system.
”When somebody is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, they don’t just go missing from their everyday lives, they go missing from their families and their communities suffer for their loss as well,” Amy Sings In The Timber, director of the project, said. “The thing that's really incredibly important is the tremendous toll that it takes not only on wrongfully convicted individuals and their families and on their communities.”
Oct. 2 was the annual International Wrongful Conviction Day, and the walkers addressed a need for more accountability in the justice system. Sings In The Timber said a lot of people are not aware of the issue.
The Montana Innocence Project appeals cases in Montana that it investigated and found to be invalid. Sings In The Timber said many cases are processed without the correct evidence, or victims are forced into a confession for something they did not do.
“I think for the most part when somebody sees someone in jail, everybody just sort of assumes that that's where they belong,” Sings In The Timber said. “I think there's a lot more to that.”
The Montana Innocence Project is a member of the 68 innocence network organizations worldwide. They work to exonerate wrongly convicted people in the state of Montana.
The group works in the courtroom with a dozen cases a year, arguing in many cases that the prosecution incorrectly charged the people in prison. It also lobbies in the Montana State Legislature with a goal of creating better justice policy that keeps local attorneys accountable.
Usually the group handles a dozen cases a year, but Sings In The Timber hopes the group can get some more funds this year to hire a full-time investigator to expand the amount of work they can do.
The Montana Innocence Project partnered with another social justice group called Welcome Back. Welcome Back’s mission is to provide formerly incarcerated people a support system to help them stabilize in society.
“We feel like we're the voice for those that are incarcerated and don't have a voice,” organizer Benny Lacayo said. “We believe the justice system needs to change. The way it's set up is for failure instead of for you to go back into society.”
Lacayo worked previously in Welcome Back helping men who had just left the prison system to reenter society. He said having a prison record is a major setback for people, and it restricts them from getting jobs as well as housing.
The event on Friday was a part of a nationwide walkout initiated by the Northern California Innocence Project. Originally, the groups planned for more in-person events throughout the day, but decided to just have the walk and move the other activities online.
Fallen leaves crunched under foot as around fifteen marchers made their way through the University District on Friday evening, Oct. 2, 2020. T…
One virtual event featured a fireside chat with Barry Beach, a wrongfully convicted man whose story helped launch the Innocence Project. Beach was convicted of first degree murder in 1979, even though there was missing evidence and he said his confession was coerced.
“The belief is that every crime gets this very meticulous, and well-thought out, scientific investigation, and that's not the case at all,” Beach said. “There has to be laws changed within our judicial system and by our legislators to restore the accountability to our prosecutors and law enforcement.”
Beach was charged in 1979 and served almost 30 years in prison. In 2008, a Dateline episode brought his case to the nationwide stage, and in 2011 a judge cleared him of the charges.
The Montana Supreme Court attempted to re-incarcerate Beach for years after that, before Gov. Steve Bullock lowered Beach’s sentence to just time served.