Thoughts from Jensie Anderson, lead attorney for the recently exonerated Harry Miller
Louisiana native Harry Miller spent three-and-a-half years at the Utah State Prison for a robbery he did not commit. Charged with stealing a woman’s purse at knifepoint on Dec. 8, 2000, he was convicted in 2003—based solely on eyewitness testimony—of first-degree felony aggravated robbery. In his defense, he claimed that at the time of the crime he was in Louisiana recovering from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Evidence to prove his alibi was not fully developed at his trial and Miller was convicted and ordered to serve five years to life in prison. In 2007, after his appellate attorneys gathered evidence that supported his alibi, his case was remanded for a new trial and the State chose to dismiss the charges against him “in the interests of justice.” He was released from prison, but it took until Sept. 12, 2011 for him to be declared factually innocent by a Third District Court judge in Salt Lake City. Because Miller was officially exonerated, he will receive approximately $120,000 in assistance payments and plans to move back to Louisiana to be near his family.
Jensie Anderson, a clinical professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law and president and legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), is also director of the Innocence Clinic at the law school. As lead attorney for Miller, she supervised students who assisted in the investigation through the Innocence Clinic. FYI News recently had an opportunity to ask her a few questions about the experience.
FYI News: How and when did RMIC become involved in the Harry Miller case?
Jensie Anderson: In 2008, after Miller’s initial petition for a declaration of factual innocence was dismissed by the trial court, RMIC assisted in the appeal of that dismissal and ultimately gathered the evidence that allowed the State to agree to finally correct this wrongful conviction.
FYI: How did you become involved in his case and what was your role?
Anderson: As president and legal director of RMIC, I am personally involved in all of the cases that RMIC investigates and litigates. In this instance, I took the lead attorney role, supervised students who assisted in the investigation through the Innocence Clinic at the law school, and stood at Mr. Miller’s side when he was declared factually innocent last week. It was truly an honor.
FYI: What specifically did you do?
Anderson: As we examined, investigated, and ultimately litigated this case, it was absolutely clear that Mr. Miller could not have been involved. He simply could not have been in Utah on Dec. 8, 2000, because he was at home in Louisiana recovering from a stroke. Not only did we gather documents and evidence in the case, but we sent a student investigator to Louisiana to interview friends and family who saw Harry during his rehabilitation, and we hired an eyewitness identification expert who could determine what was wrong with the original eyewitness testimony. Further, we put together all of our findings in an extensive report which we provided to the State in hopes that they would agree to an exoneration.
FYI: From your point of view, what is the take away from this case? Anderson: This is a classic case of mistaken eyewitness identification—a case where reliance on eyewitness identification results in a conviction despite other evidence that contradicts the eyewitness’ memory of events. Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing. This case will hopefully allow RMIC to continue to advocate for improved eyewitness identification procedures throughout the criminal justice process.
FYI: What is important for people to understand about the work of the RMIC?
Anderson: Given the room for error in our justice system, hundreds of other innocent people are likely in prison in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming in profound violation of their constitutional rights. These individuals have been robbed not only of their liberty but also of their home, work, family, and future. They have no assets, no representation, no access to the courts, and, without the services provided by RMIC, no hope of ever righting the wrong committed against them. RMIC provides critical legal services—and hope—to these individuals by helping them find a way to prove their wrongful imprisonment in court and thereby win restoration of their rights, freedom and life. Further, RMIC, through public education and policy advocacy, brings the fissures in our criminal justice system to the forefront and thus hopes to ultimately improve the system so that other innocent individuals are protected from wrongful conviction.
FYI: How is RMIC connected to the U?
Anderson: RMIC is an independent 501(c)(3) that is supported by private individuals and independent foundations, and recently received a federal grant that allowed it to hire a staff attorney and case manager. The Innocence Clinic at the law school is an externship program where law students learn to investigate and litigate cases of actual innocence by working with RMIC and its staff.