The state Justice Department last week asked prosecutors throughout the state to give it a heads up about cases involving UW-affiliated groups known for their work in overturning wrongful convictions.
"If you have any post-conviction cases pending with the Innocence Project or Remington Center, please contact me," wrote Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte, in an email obtained by Isthmus. "If you get any such cases in the future I would also like to be contacted."
Korte deferred an inquiry to others in his department. Dean Stensberg, executive assistant to state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, says there is nothing unusual about one group of lawyers wanting to gather information on another group of lawyers.
"It's sort of an effort to understand how they do business," says Stensberg, noting that the Justice Department would typically be on the opposite side of cases brought by the Innocence Project. "It may be an expected good practice for attorneys to try and understand what folks on the other side of the bar are doing, and how they do it."
Stensberg says the goal of the inquiry is not to make the Justice Department "a repository of information" on the Innocence Project, nor "create a manual on how to oppose" the group. Rather, he portrays it as a more mundane undertaking: "In this line of work, if you have a usual customer, it helps to know what their MO is."
The Wisconsin Innocence Project, run out of the UW Law School's Remington Center, has since 1999 succeeded in freeing more than a dozen inmates. The project is run by three UW Law School lawyers, with help from law students and others.
Even still, the Innocence Project's resources are more modest than those of many criminal defense law firms, and are dwarfed by those of the state Justice Department.
Innocence Project lawyer Keith Findley says he's "surprised" by Kortes' email. After consulting with others at the Law School, he issued a statement:
"We of course do not know what motivated that email, and will let them speak to that. I can say, however, that for more than 30 years we at the Remington Center have worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice and Department of Corrections on our shared goals of serving justice in the criminal justice system, and we have no reason to believe that anything is changing in that regard."
Findley's statement adds that Remington Center Director Meredith Ross and faculty director Walter Dickey "will be sending Justice officials an email reaffirming our commitment to continued cooperation, and making it clear that, if the DOJ wants any information about the cases we are litigating, they can just let us know and we will be happy to share all that we can..."