Grassroots Investigation Project
GRIP began in 2000 with the publication of Reasonable Doubts: Is the US Executing Innocent People? Prior to its publication, GRIP Coordinator, Claudia Whitman, had been a full time volunteer for Equal Justice USA for 5 or 6 years and had worked on various projects and case investigation. As a result of the report, people on death rows around the country contacted GRIP and asked for help on their cases. Claudia began selecting cases that showed a probability of innocence for investigation.
Two death penalty cases she selected were the case of Artez Hammonds in Alabama and that of Lawson Strickland in Louisiana. She also did work on the Troy Davis case in Georgia and a non death penalty case from GA, that of Willie Tucker. She spent 10 years on the Hammonds case, finding a team of two pro-bono lawyers and a DNA expert to work with her. Ultimately, the case was picked up by the AL Federal Defender’s office in Montgomery and Claudia was hired by them briefly. Happily, Mr. Hammonds case is still under appeal with new evidence having surfaced as well as other strong legal issues.
Lawson Strickland was able to retain counsel through Claudia’s work, was re-sentenced to Life Without Parole, and still has issues pending in court. Troy Davis’s case gained world recognition through the tireless work of his sister, Martina Correia, and Amnesty International but, sadly, he was executed in September 2011.
Willie Tucker was paroled in 2006, after 10 years of GRIP work. He has had a difficult time as an ex-felon seeking work, though his record since leaving prison has been perfect. Happily, as he continued to work with Claudia over the last 6 years, he has just found employment. GRIP played a pivotal role in exposing the wrongful conviction of Jeffrey Deskovic, a man who spent 16 years in a New York state prison for a murder he did not commit. Deskovic was 16 when arrested. He was exonerated and released from prison in September of 2007. In May 2010, GRIP celebrated the release from prison of Charles Wakefield Jr. after 35 years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit. Claudia worked on his case for 13 years and for 10 of those years with a pro bono attorney. Despite difficulties with the background check in terms of work and housing, through a friend of Claudia’s, Charles has obtained work in Charlotte, NC at a housing complex for disabled people. He is doing very well.
Other GRIP cases in MO, MD, AL, TX continue to receive attention. MO client, Rodney Carr, now has an attorney thanks to GRIP work.
In 2005, GRIP published The Capital Defense Handbook for Defendants and their Families. GRIP collaborated with the American Friends Service Committee and the National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE to produce the family trainings with the Capital Defense Handbook for Defendants and their Families. GRIP has conducted trainings in: TX, OH, PA, MO, FL, SC, AL sponsored by local family and abolitionist groups. The Quixote Center funds Claudia for travel expenses to conduct trainings and investigation.
Recently, GRIP worked with the ACLU of MI to uncover juvenile cases that involved police misconduct. Claudia serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and conducts training workshops at their annual conference. She also conducts training workshops annually, using the Capital Defense Handbook, at Life in the Balance training, a death penalty defense training sponsored by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. GRIP also works with State Defender groups on getting the Handbook out to defendants and their families. For example, the TX Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty requested it to be sent to every TX death row prisoner and it was sent by the Quixote Center, the publisher, at no charge. GRIP also works with private attorneys on investigation of innocence cases or in cases where help is needed on specific issues such as plea bargains. GRIP is currently working with the Innocence Clinic of the University of Michigan on a case they are litigating which was a GRIP case. The New York Innocence Project currently has accepted and is working on a GRIP case.
GRIP has spent the last year and a half looking at old Michigan (mainly Detroit) cases involving police misconduct. Of the 20 cases currently included in the inquiry, 5 were juveniles at the time of arrest. Most of the other men were in their teens or early 20’s. All but one claim actual innocence, meaning that they say they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted. All are African American. Most are serving Life Without Parole or such long sentences that they are effectively incarcerated for Life. Most have exhausted all legal remedies and are without lawyers or any access to the Courts despite their claims of innocence. Ten cases involve the misconduct of one former Detroit homicide detective where he beat and threatened defendants, threatened and paid witnesses, violated Miranda rights, locked defendants in a “closet” with no light or access to toilet facilities until he could get a confession. The other 10 cases include the use of informants, ballistics fraud, erroneous eyewitness identification, coercion of witnesses, perjury as well as ineffective assistance of counsel. Because these are not death penalty cases, there is little interest in their stories or their search for justice. GRIP is looking at combining a media, political, and legal strategy to bring attention to a problem that is endemic in this country: targeting of poor, young men of color through the War on Drugs mentality and getting convictions and Life sentences, often based on police and prosecutorial misconduct.
GRIP is also working on issues of Re-Entry. This Fall Claudia set up and facilitated a panel on re-entry at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association Centennial Conference in Washington DC.