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Innocence Project's Justice Seekers Are Busier Than Ever

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

January 20, 2008

In 2006, when wrongfully convicted James Calvin Tillman was freed after 18 years in prison, he likened the public defenders who'd worked for his release to two great basketball players.

Tillman, who had been convicted of a rape and kidnapping that he didn't commit, had always maintained his innocence. His defenders, Karen A. Goodrow (who says her basketball playing is restricted to time in the driveway getting trounced by her nearly 12-year-old son, A.J.) and Brian Carlow, were running the nascent Connecticut Innocence Project in their spare time.

The Tillman case left the office with a new, unexpected pressure. It's one thing to work toward justice. It's quite another to achieve it, and then remember there are 100 other cases every bit as important that need your attention. The camera's glare was a long way from the days when Goodrow and Carlow did their work out of a cardboard box marked "CTIP" in red ink.

These days, Carlow is now Deputy Chief Public Defender Carlow; Goodrow remains director of the project, one of roughly 60 around the country that seek to free wrongfully convicted people.

In the meantime, Goodrow and Tillman have been on the speaking circuit civic groups, schools and such and have developed a pattern. Goodrow, an accomplished attorney with more hours in the courtroom than she'd like to remember, prefers to speak first. Tillman is something of a poet-philosopher, and he's a tough act to follow. On several occasions, when speaking to the press, Tillman would say something that would make Carlow and Goodrow stop and look at one another, awed. He once told a group that he always knew he was innocent, "but I thought I would let science be science." Eventually, the rest of the world would catch up with him, and with the truth.

He is their best-known case, but the state's jails house more than one innocent person. In December, Michael Lefebvre, a former East Hartford cop-turned-attorney, joined Goodrow on the project after 17 years in private practice. He has quickly become essential; Goodrow jokes about printing a T-shirt to mark the date of his hire: "What Did I Do Before Dec. 21?"

The two are investigating some 100 cases, though for now, Lefebvre is concentrating on the more complex ones. Only about 10 percent of their workload involves cases in which new technology might render a different verdict, Goodrow said. The rest is old-fashioned legwork, delving through testimony or calling untapped witnesses to find that one loose thread.

As a topic, Tillman, who works at the Capitol Region Education Council, usually focuses on forgiveness, and he encourages young people to make good choices. He and Goodrow will speak at 1:30 p.m. Monday as part of a Martin Luther King Day celebration at Smith Middle School in Glastonbury. The event, sponsored by the Glastonbury Human Relations Commission, is free.

The project was eventually able to get new DNA tests run on stains left on the clothing of the victim. Goodrow says she remained cautious right up until the judge granted a petition for a new trial; the state did not pursue a new trial. Tillman had left the prison and walked straight into the arms of his waiting family. The state eventually awarded him $5 million. During the compensation hearings, there was much talk about moral obligation.

We have other moral obligations. In our zeal to prevent another horrible event like last summer's Cheshire murders of the Petit mother and her daughters, we have an obligation to move judicially, with an eye on the civil rights of all parties.

It's too easy to rush to judgment, and then tuck yourself in at night believing you've put away the bad guy. In the tragic case of James Calvin Tillman, the bad guy is still at large.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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