From NALA’s 2020 Conference @ Home, host Carl Morrison welcomes Anne Geraghty-Rathert to follow up on her presentation about wrongful convictions and her work with the WILLOW Project. Anne discusses the unique issues surrounding women’s wrongful convictions and shares ways paralegals can get involved in clemency-based projects.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert is an attorney in private practice and a professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri.
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The Paralegal Voice
The WILLOW Project Helping Wrongfully Convicted Women
Carl Morrison: Hello everyone. Welcome to a special episode of The Paralegal Voice here on the Legal Talk Network. I am Carl Morrison, advanced certified paralegal and your host to The Paralegal Voice.
We are here today reporting from NALA’s 45th annual conference, and you are like, “wait, I thought this was a virtual conference?” Well, it is. It’s also known as the 2020 NALA Conference @ Home. Due to the pandemic and due to ensure everyone’s safety and health in attending the conference, NALA’s Conference went virtual which was a huge deal and it’s a first for Paralegal Association and I know we’re really, really excited about the conference.
And so today, my special guest is Anne Geraghty-Rathert, JD and she is presenting at the virtual conference on wrongful convictions and what’s known as “The WILLOW Project,” we’re going to talk about that in a second. So, thank you Anne so much for taking time out of your schedule to really sit down with me and do sort of what I’m calling an epilogue to your presentation and welcome to the show.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Well, thank you. Nothing makes me happier than talking about this subject. So, glad to be here.
Carl Morrison: I’m a little bit of a law nerd and so, I kind of geek out on this particular subject. So I have a lot of questions for you and I’m sure the listeners do too and so, let’s just jump off into it, let’s just get into it.
And so, in your presentation, you talk about the fact that incarcerated women are less likely to be exonerated for wrongful convictions than men really due to a lack of DNA among other reasons. And I really want to know and I’m sure some of the attendees that have attended it and those that may be listening to the presentation, the recorded version of it, why is that? What’s the cause for that?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Well, the complications are many. First of all, with women, the crimes that women are accused of tend to have DNA less frequently than crimes that men are convicted or charged with, and part of that is due to the nature of the crime. So women are less likely to be charged with rape and murder, and so there’s less likely to be DNA at the scene that will link them immediately to that particular crime. The other part about it is that women tend to be convicted of crimes that have to do with people they know, and so if there is any DNA, part of the problem is that you know if it’s a crime scene in someone’s house that person living there as well tends to have DNA all over the place.
So DNA is very infrequently a factor in women’s convictions generally, and so that means that when we get to the wrongful conviction part of it, that it’s much more difficult to prove someone’s innocence to exonerate them because DNA is not in existence or hasn’t been collected or won’t indicate that this person is or is not the perpetrator. So, that’s the first problem.
The other part of it is of course that there are some stereotypes as we know that still follow women around, and part of that are things like motives that are attributed characteristics to women that may or may not be the case, such as they say the motive could be that the person’s career obsessed and so they don’t want their children around if it’s like a child murder or their revenge obsessed or jealous or all of these sort of sexist stereotypes that they’re bad mothers, that they’re prostitutes those kinds of things.
And so, if you’re in that mindset as a police officer or prosecutor, you’re much more likely to sort of have tunnel vision and focus in on someone who’s close to the crime and then without any forensic science that can negate that women are more likely to be convicted of those crimes and some of the forensic science problems are key to this. So we have seen that arson cases have changed a lot, the forensic science has changed on that, shaken baby syndrome is far less conclusive then one would have believed in the past. So a lot of wrongful convictions have come about because of bad signs and also be of tunnel vision connecting a death or a crime to people who are immediately in the vicinity and that in a home situation tends to put the focus on women.
Carl Morrison: There’s a lot to unpack with that particular answer and I can really like elaborate on a whole theory of different things. So I’m going to kind of reel us back a step. And so, let’s first talk about can you define what The WILLOW Project is for our listeners? What is that? And really, how long has it been in existence?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Yeah. So, The WILLOW Project, is a project that myself and a couple former students formed when we started to accumulate wrongful conviction cases that were involving incarcerated women. And so, we have been attempting to get people out of prison who are wrongfully convicted. We have three clients, and the first client we received about nine years ago and have been doing that work ever since, all of our clients have things in common with each other all of them were teenagers when they were convicted of the crimes, all of them were in extremely abusive home situations and or in extremely violent relationships with significant others, and all of them were convicted of crimes that were actually perpetrated by people who are their captors or their abusers.
And so, the themes that run through this — that cases are all very different from each other, but the themes that run through this have to do with violence against women and the fact that these situations are not looked at individually by the justice system.
Carl Morrison: So you and other peers saw a need for this particular project initiative, and how long has it been in existence?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: About eight or nine years in total. So that was when got received our first clients, but we decided to make it into an organization a non-profit when we started accumulating additional clients. So, that was when we came up with the name The WILLOW Project. And actually, WILLOW, is an acronym it stands for Women Initiate Legal Lifelines to Other Women. And the mission of The WILLOW Project is to offer access to the justice system for people who have been without a voice in it in the past and who have been wrongfully convicted because of the lack of a voice.
Carl Morrison: Since you started this particular project, and I guess that’s the best term to call it project or initiative, have you seen just a giant outpouring of people approaching you and going, “can you help me? I’ve heard about you?” And you just don’t have enough manpower, is that what you’re seeing?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: That’s exactly it. So we are trying not to take on any more cases until we make significant progress in the cases that we have. Unfortunately, as you suggest, there is such a great need and one of the most shocking things for me has been that to find three cases that we currently have where the people who are incarcerated with life sentences are factually innocent, wrongfully convicted and at first I thought that is really odd how did that happen but what I came to understand was that it’s just the tip of a very large iceberg of wrongful convictions. And there has been a lot of focus through the last couple decades on wrongful convictions generally, but there are very, very few people who identify as women who have been exonerated in other words found innocent in comparison to the very large numbers of people who are identify as male who have been exonerated and found innocent.
And so, this has become sort of my obsession I suppose that I’m trying to figure out ways in which I can get representation for other people, trying not to take on additional clients it’s getting harder and harder because once you start to get into this work, people hear that you’re doing it and since people who are in prison obviously don’t have access to lawyers and they also don’t have the money to pay for them if they hear about someone who’s doing it for free for you know pro bono work, then that makes it that much more important that they get a hold of someone. So a lot of what we hear is like letters from prisons, we get phone calls from relatives seeking our assistance and then, we spend a lot of time just trying to find other representation in the attempt to not take on more than we can handle us, they’re really just three of us who work on it on a regular basis along with student interns from Webster University who are of course awesome and every way too, but we also don’t want to get into a situation where we can’t give diligent representation to the people that we have already taken on as clients.
So it’s complicated and then a way so discouraging I wish that we had more resources, but unfortunately at this point, this is what we can do.
Carl Morrison: And of course, with the advent of some of these docuseries such as on Netflix like making a murderer, the staircase, things like that where individuals, whether they are truly or not going through the same type of issue and I think that’s probably — you tell me, exacerbated the problem or made brought more of the problem to light?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: I think you are correct. What happened first I think for those of us who are a little older, we remember a time when you sort of just assumed that people who were imprisoned were guilty, right?
Carl Morrison: Right.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: And that was all that there was to be said about it, and I think then with the beginning of the Innocence Project which does DNA exonerations, people began to realize the more and more DNA exonerations there were, it started to loosen that viewpoint. People came to realize that DNA is such an exact science when done correctly that it pretty much guaranteed that the people who had been accused and found guilty were in fact innocent, and that sort of began to open up to crack that mentality that people in prison are all guilty.
And so, I think TV and media followed that because it’s a fascinating subject horrifying, but fascinating, TV shows started to follow that same line of reasoning and then other media, podcasts and so forth. Because there is a recognition that there is something inherently flawed in the justice system that allows people to fall through these cracks and to end up in a place where they clearly do not deserve to be.
Carl Morrison: Right. And really how is The WILLOW Project you mentioned the Innocence Project, how is The WILLOW Project different from that similar type of program?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Yeah. The first big difference of course is the size of the Innocence Project as compared to our little tiny project in St. Louis Missouri. The Innocence Project having gone nationwide and even internationally to some extent. But the other thing that makes it significantly different besides size, is that the Innocence Project has exclusively to this point and they’re beginning to change, but up to this point they focused almost exclusively on DNA exonerations.
Obviously, as I said, none of our cases there was any DNA collected. In fact, the majority of cases that are out there, the estimates are that only — there’s only DNA in about 20% of all criminal cases. So if we’re finding people who are wrongfully convicted and we can prove their innocence by DNA, that means that there’s 80% of the prison population that doesn’t even have DNA, we have to assume that some of them are innocent as well and probably in similar numbers to the ones that just happen to have the DNA available to be tested.
So none of our clients have DNA in their cases. And so, they’re very different and we are very different from the Innocence Project in our approach which it means, that we have to go back and we have to interview all kinds of people, we have to go through the records and in far greater detail we have to try to contact lawyers and judges and those kinds of things to see what happened precisely, to see where the errors occurred and to try to write them in whatever way we can.
Carl Morrison: Right. Well, I’m going to cut us off at this point because we’re going to take a short commercial break. But I know, you and I could sit here and talk all day about this. This is — I absolutely love this subject. So, we’re going to take a short commercial break, so don’t turn your dial, we’ll be right back.
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Carl Morrison: Welcome back to The Paralegal Voice. Like I said before commercial break, this topic is a fascinating one and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be speaking with you about this truly important topic. I don’t practice in the area of criminal law, I’m in-house corporate paralegal.
But I’m intrigued with the overall topic of wrongful convictions and giving help to those that are wrongfully accused and sentenced, and we talked a lot about sort of the differences in the penal system between women and men and you mention in your presentation that the rate of incarceration for women is really currently increasing at a rate twice that of men which I find absolutely fascinating. And why do you think that cause is for that? Are there a number of reasons or just a couple of reasons why that is happening?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: I believe there are lot of reasons. But I think, part of it is just that the studies that are out there that tend to drive the changes in policy, are looking at the prison population as a whole as opposed to specific groups. And so, while there are far, far fewer women who are incarcerated in the United States —
I mean, far fewer women. As you suggest, the population of women in state prisons has grown by 834% in the last 40 years, whereas the incarcerated men population has only growing up by 367. Now, we should be horrified at either number, right?
Carl Morrison: Right.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: And this is even — get based on the fact that the population in general only grew by 44%. So to have the prison population grow by 367% in the male incarcerated prisons and 834% in the women prisons is shocking in relation to the normal population growth. But I think that what is happening is people are realizing that mass incarceration is a huge problem and that it has been policy and legislatively driven. So some of the reforms that are happening right now are just going to that issue of looking at the policies and then in turn creating new policies that will in some way perhaps stop that or slow that growth of the population in prisons.
But since they’re looking at the population as a whole and not focusing on women, which as I say is a much smaller percentage of that population. It’s almost as if the policies don’t apply. So there are a lot of things that happen in women’s prisons that are very different. First of all, when they measure disciplinary actions within the prisons women get far more disciplinary actions than do men, and why that is? I mean, we could talk about that for a really long time, I believe it also has to do with stereotypes and sexist belief systems because the things they’re punishing are things that if perhaps someone who was not a female did them would get very little attention under the sort of boys will be boys mentality whereas the expectation for females is to behave in a very different way, so the disciplinary actions are significant in prison.
What does that have to do with the prison population? It also applies in education. So juveniles who are in the school system, females are being disciplined at much higher rates, they are then entering the prison — the school to prison pipeline. And then when they get to prison, those disciplinary actions in the prison prevent them from accessing probation other kinds of diversion programs that might be for drug rehabilitation or other things like that. So the criminalization of behaviors that aren’t necessarily criminal in nature are problematic. The other thing is — and something that we’re just really coming to grips with I think as a society is the amount of people, the number of people in the trafficking industry.
Carl Morrison: Right.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Particularly, in the sex trafficking industry. And it’s very difficult I believe for police officers and prosecutors to draw a line between people who are also victims but are somehow forced to be involved in the trafficking industry against their will, but then they are committing crimes not by their own independent judgement, but still crimes and there’s –- it’s hard to figure out who’s a victim. So such that we end up with a lot of people in prison and particularly women who are in situations of domestic violence or trafficking and appear to be committing horrific crimes but are actually not operating of their own independent will.
Carl Morrison: Right. And you mentioned the school to prison pipeline just made me think this morning, I saw on Twitter an article by I believe it was the ABA Journal about that very topic and I’m going to have to go back and read it because it’s a subject that I was like wow that’s an interesting topic, and we talked about that.
I should have you on and do a separate show about all sorts of different things and we could really go on a whole bunch of different topics. But, I really want to talk about from the paralegal’s perspective, how can a paralegal go about in assisting and getting involved with a project such as The WILLOW Project? Are there opportunities for a paralegal like myself to provide pro bono services to an organization like yourself?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: There absolutely are. In fact, there are so many organizations that are desperate for assistance and to have someone with legal background, to have a paralegal with that knowledge base would be just an incredible gift to a lot of these organizations. So I don’t think you would have trouble finding someone who would say, yes and be eager to have the assistance. The issue I think is finding the organization. So just as I said the Innocence Project is big and invisible, they’re always in need of people. So that would be one place to start, but there are also a lot of other clemency based projects throughout the United States that don’t have the size and don’t have the recognition.
So my project is an example, I know the Skylark Project in Iowa, the Centurion Project in Massachusetts, there are a lot of really great organizations that are doing similar kinds of work and pro bono. So what happens is that the people who are legal professionals are just putting in whatever time they can. So they’re desperate for volunteers to do any number of things on-site or off-site, research projects, going through files all those things that we know paralegals are highly trained to do. And it’s not only limited to the wrongful conviction world either, we just talked about trafficking, there are all these other organizations out there that need people to go through their files and to identify discrepancies and errors and all those sorts of things. So there are many ways in which a paralegal could become involved in pro bono work and if anybody needs any suggestions, I’m more than happy to direct them to a local organization wherever they are or to something that is more widely recognized like the Innocence Project.
Carl Morrison: That’s fantastic I’m sure a lot of our listeners would like that more. Well, at the closing, we’ll get your contact info and one last question I wanted to ask you is, how did you decide you know, you mentioned the three clients that you have, how do you decide to take on the clients? Under what circumstances do you choose to take on additional clients? I know you mentioned that you’re putting maxed out at the moment, but at what point do you have to start eliciting more help?
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Well, the first case that we received came to us because the former student of mine was doing somewhat similar work and that she was representing exclusively women in prison who had been convicted of killing their batterers. And so, when she heard about the first client we received, Angel her situation was one of violence but she was not being accused of killing her batterer instead she was being accused of being held captive herself and being literally and figuratively along for the ride when her captors killed two elderly women.
And so, she was charged along with them with the mental age of 10, she has some severe impairments and she was unable to say what had happened to her or why she was there or the circumstances. So my former student was very concerned about her, didn’t want to just let her go and ask me if I would look into the case and so that’s how we received our first case. The other ones have come to us either through letters from prison or from people calling us and begging us to take on the cases and as they say, there are many, many more out they’re just keeping up with the mail and trying to find representation for people and responding to people as a full-time job at this point.
Carl Morrison: Right.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: So, we’re trying not to take on anymore, we would love to take on more someday for ever larger we will, but at this point we’re susceptible to be having our arm twisted but trying to make sure that we do an adequate job for the people that we have.
Carl Morrison: And I have to applaud you for the work that you’re doing because it’s not an easing type of work and what you’re doing to help those that’s are wrongfully convicted to me personally that’s an amazing thing. And so, I thank you for the work and service that you’re doing for those that are wrongfully incarcerated and need to be exonerated.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Thanks for saying that. But I just want to say that the legal profession doesn’t ever get the credit that it deserves. There are so many paralegals and lawyers out there every day fighting the good fight in their full-time jobs, in their pro bono work and so I appreciate that thanks, but let me just spread that thanks to all the legal professionals who are awake at night worrying the same as I am and doing amazing things relentlessly pursuing whatever justice they can.
Carl Morrison: Thank you. I mean, we work in a profession that works in the background pretty much and we don’t look for the limelight. So thank you, and thank you to the listeners. So I appreciate that and I know we could go on and on and on about this topic.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Yes. I often to do.
Carl Morrison: And I love it and I could sit here and talk to you for the next however long, but at this point by the time you’re listening to this particular episode you’ve probably may have already attended her end session on the WILLOW Project. If not, listen to it most definitely you don’t want to miss it and if any of our listeners wanted to reach out to you, how would they go about getting a hold of you.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: Yeah. Well, we have our website which is willowprojectstl — for St. Louis willowprojectstl.org. We’re on Facebook at The WILLOW Project STL, but probably the easiest way to get ahold of us at this point is just to email me directly. So I’m Webster University in St. Louis. So if you lose this email address you can find me on the Webster University site, but my email address is a [email protected] So that’s [email protected] So, please reach out if you even just want to discuss it, but certainly if you want to be directed somewhere I’ll find a place for you to work I guarantee it.
Carl Morrison: Anne, thank you so, so much, I really appreciate it. And like I said, perhaps you and I should do a full episode on one of these little distinct topics that we talked about today. So, it’s an important subject and the more education that we can get out there the better. So, thank you Anne so much for being a guest on the show today.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert: It’s so nice to meet you Carl and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my favorite subject so.
Carl Morrison: Fantastic thanks again Anne. We’re going to take a short commercial break, we’ll be back right after these messages.
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Carl Morrison: Everyone today I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed today’s show it’s a topic that I find absolutely fascinating and my heart pours out for those that are have been wrongfully accused and incarcerated, and this is a topic that we should all be helping provide support and getting out there and fighting the good fight.
And so, that’s all the time we have today for The Paralegal Voice. If you have questions about today’s show, please email them to me at [email protected]. That’s [email protected] and stay tuned for more information and upcoming podcast for exciting paralegal trends, news and engaging and fun interviews from leading paralegals and other leading legal professionals.
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