Building off wins in 2021, Ohio's Wrongful Conviction Project plans to take on more cases

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Kim Hoover, shown here in a Jan. 3 photo, walked out of prison in October 2021 as a free woman with a clean slate. A Franklin County judge threw out her 2003 conviction after new evidence was presented by the Ohio Public Defender's Wrongful Conviction Project.
Kim Hoover, shown here in a Jan. 3 photo, walked out of prison in October 2021 as a free woman with a clean slate. A Franklin County judge threw out her 2003 conviction after new evidence was presented by the Ohio Public Defender's Wrongful Conviction Project.

When a judge threw out her murder conviction in October, Kim Hoover walked out of state prison with a clean slate and a heap of gratitude for her legal team.

"I owe my life to Joe (Bodenhamer) and Joanna (Sanchez) and their staff. They're amazing. I don't believe I'd be out if it weren't for them," Hoover said of the Ohio Public Defender's Wrongful Conviction Project.

Hoover spent 18 years behind bars for the death of Samaisha Benson, a nine-month-old whom she babysat. Sanchez and her team worked the case for 10 years, prying loose medical records and documentation and questioning the expert testimony used to convict Hoover.

"I had faith all along because they were my only hope. Because I was in prison I could not reach the resources that she could. So I had to put it into her hands," said Hoover. "I had to trust and believe in somebody."

The case against Hoover relied heavily on testimony of medical experts, and the pathologist who conducted the autopsy eventually recanted his testimony. Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Carl Aveni vacated Hoover's conviction and prosecutors dismissed all charges.

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What's next for the Wrongful Conviction Project?

The Ohio Public Defender's Wrongful Conviction Project is coming off three big wins in 2021: Hoover's case as well as the release of Kenny Phillips and Michael Sutton, who are out on bond until their new trial begins.

Phillips and Sutton spent 14 years in prison for the shooting of two people and attempted shooting of a Cleveland police officer. The Wrongful Conviction Project and Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati collaborated on that case.

Now moving into 2022, Sanchez said the project is primed to investigate and litigate more cases. Last year the project changed its staffing when Bodenhamer retired and state lawmakers approved a bigger budget for the Ohio Public Defender. Now the project has four full-time attorneys, up from one.

Hoover is forever grateful to the project and Director Joanna Sanchez, on the right, who is hoping to build the project with more staff and funding in 2022.
Hoover is forever grateful to the project and Director Joanna Sanchez, on the right, who is hoping to build the project with more staff and funding in 2022.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young started the project in 2009 with one attorney, one investigator and a handful of law students. Its focus was cases where there was no biological evidence to test for DNA – making the arguments particularly challenging.

Initially it received funding from Ohio State University College of Law alumna Erin Moriarty, a television journalist who grew up in Ohio. The project also won a two-year grant in 2012 from the U.S. Department of Justice, allowing it to expand staffing.

The project screens hundreds of applications each year, paying close attention to those with red flags commonly seen in wrongful conviction cases. Attorneys look for cases that rely heavily on science that has since been discredited, confessions that came after prolonged interrogations, informant testimony or witnesses who may have been pressured or may have misidentified the perpetrator.

The work requires patience and perseverance. Sanchez said these cases typically take eight to 12 years of active litigation.

Sanchez started as a law school intern with the project.

"For me, being able to help people whose voice has been silenced is really important. It will insure that people are respected and their rights are upheld," she said. "What keeps me doing this work is you get to know your clients and their families and their lives. Once we realize we have these problems in our system it’s hard to look away."

Hoover said is convinced that more innocent people are sitting in Ohio prisons in need of Sanchez and her team.

"I owe them my life. I can't begin to imagine a world right now if agencies like this didn't exist," Hoover said.

Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio Public Defender plows resources into wrongful conviction project

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