Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 3, 2016

Iowa’s new wrongful conviction unit sees leadership change

Nov 30, 2016

IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa's one-year-old wrongful conviction division is getting a new director, following the departure of its first leader this fall.

The State Public Defender's Office told The Associated Press on Tuesday that it has hired Illinois appellate defender Erica Nichols Cook to lead the division, which was formed last year to investigate cases in which Iowa inmates claim they are innocent.

Cook, who previously worked for the Illinois Innocence Project, is expected to start in December.

The hiring comes after the September departure of director Audrey McGinn, who has returned to a job with the California Innocence Project.

The division is investigating more than 100 cases, including dozens from the 1980s and 1990s that may involve flawed hair evidence. It has yet to exonerate any inmates — or make any court filings that seek to overturn convictions or obtain new forensic testing.

Unlike many of its neighboring states, Iowa has never had an inmate exonerated due to DNA testing. Defense lawyers hailed the state's creation of the division last year as a sign that Iowa, which holds more than 8,000 inmates, was taking the possibility of wrongful convictions seriously. McGinn had played a role in freeing and exonerating several inmates in California before taking the Iowa job.

First Assistant State Public Defender Kurt Swaim said McGinn left Iowa on good terms and returned to California for personal reasons. He said she did great work getting the division organized, including building a network of volunteer attorneys to help review transcripts and partnering with the Midwest Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Iowa on investigations.

"We're extremely thankful for the time we had her here," Swaim said.

McGinn had declined last spring to publicly release a list of 120 cases she was investigating, citing attorney-client privilege and a need to keep the cases "clean and organized."

"Most of these cases are pretty tricky and involve witnesses and physical evidence that I would like to remain untouched until I can get to it to investigate it," she told AP then.

She said 96 involved the potential use of now-discredited microscopic hair comparison methods, and the review was determining whether and how such evidence was used during trials. The others awaiting review came as referrals from attorneys or requests from inmates, McGinn said.

Court records show that McGinn entered an appearance in only one case, as an interested party in a post-conviction appeal by Shawn P. Shelton, who is serving life for aiding and abetting another man in a 1989 fatal shooting.

Cook, a graduate of Drake Law School, will inherit tens of thousands of court records that need review.

"The new director's charge will be to prioritize the cases and determine those where it's most likely that there's an innocent person in prison, and most likely where we can apply the resources we have to prove their innocence," Swaim said.

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