Seeking justice for the wrongly convicted

Ted Bradford was all nerves as he paced the courthouse halls, waiting for the verdict. He knew too well how the justice system can turn on you, find you guilty of something awful you didn’t do. He had 10 wasted years behind bars to prove it. This new trial could send him back for countless more. “My anxiety level was off the charts,” said the 45-year-old from Yakima.

The jury deliberated less than five hours. The verdict: not guilty. “They finally got it right. I was almost floating on Cloud 9, I was so happy,” said Bradford, a client of the Innocence Project Northwest, a program based at the University of Washington School of Law that works to free innocent inmates, remedy the causes of wrongful convictions, and, in the process, provide students an eye-opening, real-world education.

Bradford’s dogged defenders from the IPNW – “living, breathing saints,” he calls them – celebrated his acquittal that February day in 2010 with hugs and tears and congratulations. Teams of law school students, staff and volunteer legal counsel had fought for Bradford’s exoneration for eight hard years, jumping hurdle after hurdle in their pursuit of justice for the former millworker, wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a young Yakima mother in 1996.

The acquittal was a major victory, however bittersweet. “There is nothing like being in court when someone is released from prison and the handcuffs come off and the reason it’s happening is because your team brought the case forward. It’s very joyful and it’s very tragic at the same time because of what that person has experienced,” said UW Professor of Law Jackie McMurtrie, who founded the Innocence Project Northwest in 1997. It was the third innocence project launched in the country. Today they exist in almost all states.

Since its inception, the IPNW has exonerated 14 Washington women and men, including Bradford. Collectively, these exonerees served 114 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. “We want to not only get innocent people out of jail, but to stop them from going there in the first place,” said McMurtrie’s partner, Lara Zarowsky.

Zarowsky heads the UW’s Legislative Advocacy Clinic. Her students work with state policy makers to tackle wrongful conviction issues at a system-wide policy level. They’ve successfully pushed bills to require the preservation of biological evidence collected at crime scenes and to mandate compensation for the wrongly convicted: $50,000 for each year served. They are working to improve eyewitness identification procedures and require complete recordings of law enforcement interrogations and interviews. 

McMurtrie heads the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic, which takes on individual wrongful conviction cases like Bradford’s. Students in the clinic and volunteer legal counsel are currently helping to review and investigate more than 60 cases; another 20–30 requests for legal assistance come in from inmates each month. It’s a big load for what directors call a “small, but mighty” organization run primarily on private donations, government grants and fundraising efforts.

To meet the demand, IPNW relies on pro bono volunteers like Felix Gavi Luna, a UW Law alumnus who now works for the Seattle firm Peterson Wampold Rosato Feldman Luna (PWRFL). Luna was a lead attorney in Bradford’s acquittal trial and still represents him in his fight for compensation under the new state guidelines.

“It is hard to think of anything more important than trying to defend the rights of someone innocent who is in jail,” Luna said. “These are people who have lost years of their lives and in some cases face the death penalty.”

IPNW exoneration cases are long, expensive and complicated, taking an average eight years to resolve. Investigations may turn up corrupted witnesses, bully cops, tunnel-vision prosecutors, skilled liars, defendants with mental issues or messy pasts. Forensic lab work may be unreliable, eyewitness identification faulty and expert testimony sketchy. And clients under pressure may confess to crimes they never committed.

 “It’s difficult to wrap your head around,” Zarowsky said, “but approximately one-quarter of DNA exonerations involve false confessions or incriminating statements.”

It was a false confession that sank Bradford’s case in 1996. He was a married, hard-working 22-year-old with two children under age 3 at the time of his arrest. He lived with his family in a duplex outside Yakima. But he was in jail on misdemeanor charges when detectives came to pick him. They told him they needed his help on a case, Bradford said. “They asked if I wanted to waive my rights. I willingly signed. I had no idea what I was signing. I was 22 and naive to the law.”

In the interrogation room, he said, detectives grilled him for more than eight hours, pounding on the table and yelling at him that he was guilty of the crime. They told him they had evidence that would put him at the scene. They didn’t. “They said the DNA evidence would be mine. I knew it wouldn’t. I thought, I might as well confess now then I’ll get to go home and be free and clear of this,” said Bradford, who quickly recanted.

The detectives recorded only the last half-hour of the interrogation, the part where Bradford said he was “probably” responsible. “If they had recorded the entire interrogation it would have shown the coercive tactics they used to get Ted to confess,” said McMurtrie.

So much was wrong with the case. Bradford was a modest 5-foot-7 with average build. The victim described her attacker, whose face was covered by a white nylon stocking, as big, stocky, well over six feet. Supportive co-workers testified Bradford had been at work the day of the rape. His wife said she’d picked him up there for a scheduled vasectomy. Nevertheless, with the confession in play — a confession that had nearly 30 factual errors — he was convicted. “I had faith in the system that there was no way they would find me guilty,” Bradford said. “When the verdict came in, my whole world fell away.”

His brother urged him to contact the IPNW. The first students from the project to visit him were Steven Masada and Patrick Trumpeter. “Both of us came with a level of skepticism. At some level, everyone claims innocence, then the more you dig, the more you realize this person almost certainly did it,” Masada said.

That wasn’t the case with Bradford. Masada was struck by Bradford’s sincerity as the earnest man spilled his tale, warts and all. “The first thing I said to Patrick when we walked out of the room is, ‘I believe him.’ Patrick said, ‘I do, too.” They went to McMurtrie and told her the IPNW had to help this guy.

The team dug in. It took years, but IPNW managed to get testing on DNA evidence found on black electrical tape the rapist had used to seal the eyeholes of a mask he put on the victim. The DNA belonged to an unknown male, not Bradford. Lawyers at PWRFL would later use this evidence to track down the real culprit in the case.

The new DNA evidence convinced the State Court of Appeals to reverse Bradford’s conviction. But determined Yakima County prosecutors turned around and retried him, this time adding aggravated factors to the first-degree rape and burglary charges.

Kelly Canary, a staff attorney for the IPNW at the time, was on hand to witness his acquittal in that second trial. “To this day, I have never felt anything so poignant as when Ted won,” said Canary, a former IPNW clinic student and now staff attorney at the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. “This was such a compelling example of the system having gone wrong.”

There are few easy Hollywood endings to exoneree stories. Bradford’s first wife divorced him in 1999. He missed his kids’ childhood and yearns for a close relationship with them. His career dead-ended: he has not been able to find permanent employment since his release. His health is not good: he has acute necrotizing pancreatitis and diabetes. He suffers the psychological after-effects of prison. He blows up over something as simple as an unlocked door. He knows he needs mental health treatment but can’t afford it yet.

 “I lost my youth, my freedom and my future,” he said. “For whatever reason, those detectives took my life away.”

He is struggling to rebuild. He has a supportive second wife who helps him through “the dark times.” He does advocacy work for innocence organizations across the country, telling his story and, encouraged by the IPNW, testifying before legislatures as he fights for changes in the system that failed him.

His biggest salve is music. He took up the guitar in prison to “keep sane.” Today, he performs ‘70s classics, R&B and originals with a group called The Exonerees. Its five band members have collectively spent more than 100 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

I’ve been walking the long hard road,” Bradford sings in a tender voice on his signature composition, “Waiting on the day I’m coming home.”

His case remains a powerful cautionary tale for IPNW students who’ve moved on in their legal careers. It’s a reminder of how horribly things can go wrong and the damage done. “Bradford’s case has affected how I approach my work as a prosecutor, how I think of cases and the impact we have in making decisions in the criminal justice realm,” said Steven Masada.

“These are real people and real lives we’re dealing with and we have to make sure we do it right and not just get it done.”