The Montana Innocence Project has expanded its legal team with the hiring of a former Yellowstone County District Court Law Clerk.
Entering into the organization's eighth year, the Montana Innocence Project hired a second full-time attorney, Toby Cook, former law clerk for Yellowstone County District Court Judge Russell Fagg.
"It's basically my dream job," Cook said.
The Montana Innocence Project was founded in June 2008 by a group of public officials, attorneys, journalists and University of Montana professors in order to help exonerate people wrongly convicted. Right now, the organization is representing clients in four cases.
Cook worked for the organization in the past, assisting in notable cases including the petition for a new trial for Richard Raugust, convicted of killing his best friend Joseph Tash in 1997.
Cook attended the University of Montana for the chance to volunteer with the the organization at an early point in his law career. He chose Montana over the University of Washington because UM allows even first year law students a chance to volunteer.
Cook was hired June 1 for a position as a staff attorney and director of investigations, replacing a former part-time clinic director position. He will be working with students and volunteers from various disciplines to investigate cases, but his primary role will be litigating innocence cases.
Legal Director Larry Mansch said the Montana Innocence Project likes to hire "bright folks" dedicated to the cause of exonerating innocent people in Montana. One of the last states to start an innocence project, the group has already reviewed more than 600 cases in the short time since it began. It has only litigated about eight or nine cases in that time.
In order for the organization to take on a case, applicants go through a five-step screening process, Mansch said. A convicted person sends a letter requesting help and stating the new evidence they believe could exonerate them.
If the project believes there to be "actual and factual" evidence of wrongful conviction, they send the applicant a 16-page questionnaire, Mansch said.
After the return of the questionnaire, the project conducts a preliminary investigation, sifting through trial transcripts and court documents, gathering all the information needed to determine whether or not they have a claim for post-conviction relief. Cook will direct a lot of this work.
The information found is then presented to a screening committee and a board of directors, made up of lawyers, professors and retired judges. Should the screening committee approve, the organization seeks approval from their board of directors to move forward.
At any point during this process, the organization can abandon a case if it has no merit, Mansch said.
In addition to their litigation work, the project works to influence legislation in favor of evidence preservation and against the death penalty, Mansch said. The Innocence Project also educates the public about what it does, something Mansch said the public mostly understands.
"People say, 'You're the guys who find DNA and free people with it,'" Mansch said. "And that is a pretty good description."
The biggest contributor to a false conviction is bad eyewitness identification, Mansch said. The biggest contributor to exoneration is new DNA evidence.
The Innocence Project is connected to the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law and for that reason will always have its headquarters in Missoula. However, pro bono attorneys across Montana partner with the project, which allows the organization to expand its reach. Cook worked as one of these attorneys while he clerked for Fagg.
"We'd like to have a stronger presence in Eastern Montana," Mansch said. "We'd like to have board of directors in Eastern Montana. It's a big state, and we're always looking for ways to expand."
For Fagg's part, he was sad to see Cook leave his team, but excited for his return to the project, something Fagg said he knew his former law clerk had a passion for. Fagg said no judge likes to see someone wrongly convicted, and though judges have an innate trust in the system, the evidence presented by the Innocence Project is often hard to contradict.
Mansch said he has heard overwhelmingly positive things from everyone he talks to outside the project regarding the work being done there.
The people the organization has worked for express the greatest gratitude for the project.
"Majority of them have spent several years in prison," Cook said. "They are ready to move on with their lives afterward. They aren't bitter or anything like that. The process is like an emotional roller coaster."
Fagg has an intern filling in as law clerk for the summer and a new person will begin in September.