Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Friend of the Legal Profession Award: Innocence Project Northwest

June 2019 Bar Bulletin

By Cynthia Jones
and Karen Orehoski

On a chilly May morning in 2019, on the campus of the University of Washington, we walk past the Women’s Center in Cunningham Hall, onto the tree-lined path beneath leafy branches, and past the wisterias’ vibrant purple to enter William H. Gates Hall. 

We climb the stairs to the second floor, where one of the legal community’s most esteemed members does her work. She sits in a corner of the law school, a quiet, unassuming woman who surrounds herself with the “things that make me smile,” including a sacred corner in her office dedicated to a man she helped exonerate in 2010 after he spent 17 years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. 

Professor Jackie McMurtrie points to the shrine in honor of Larry Davis, toward the art works created by his own hands including an ornately painted drum depicting brightly colored salmon, a pair that overlap on a deep blue background, that are all the more meaningful when she says, “he passed away summer before last.” 

Davis is one of 14 innocent people McMurtrie has helped exonerate over the more than 20 years since she launched the Innocence Project Northwest. This month, her organization will receive one of the King County Bar Association’s highest honors — the Friend of the Legal Profession Award. 

McMurtrie’s inspiration to launch the Innocence Project Northwest happened in part because of her own experience as a public defender representing a man charged with murder. 

“We were able to prove he was in another state, thanks to our investigator. This was pre-internet and before cell phones. Without those resources, my client could’ve easily been convicted,” McMurtrie said.

Another contributing factor was when she watched a PBS “Frontline” documentary, “What Jennifer Saw,” the story of Ronald Cotton’s conviction for a crime he did not commit and his subsequent exoneration in July 1995 after he already served 10½ years of his sentence. 

“It left an impression,” McMurtrie said. “If this case happens [a wrongful conviction] when everything goes right, from a good lawyer, to a well-meaning prosecutor, then anything can happen.”

The final push that moved McMurtrie from theory of an innocence project to the reality of one, was when Barry Scheck came to Seattle. Scheck is known for his landmark litigation that set standards for forensic application of DNA technology and is the co-founder of the first Innocence Project in New York City in 1992.

“He told me, ‘I’ll speak to the law school if you’ll start the project,’” McMurtrie recalled. And start it, she did — in 1997, the Innocence Project Northwest was born.

The 2019 Friend of the Legal Profession Award from the King County Bar Association originated with a nomination from Michael Wampold, a Seattle lawyer and UW Law School graduate, who along with his law-firm partner and fellow UW Law graduate Felix Luna, represented Ted Bradford beginning in 2002. 

For six years, IPNW worked for post-conviction DNA testing to exonerate Bradford. When the conviction was vacated by the Washington Court of Appeals, Division III, the state retried Bradford. He was acquitted. McMurtrie framed a copy of the Judgment of Acquittal, dated February 11, 2010, where it sits on her bookshelf as one of the “things that make me smile.”

When asked about the award, McMurtrie said, “I’m busting my buttons with pride.” And the expression on her face showed that she meant what she said. 

Now, more than 20 years after its founding, the Innocence Project Northwest is undergoing what McMurtrie calls “quite a transition, we’re excited about the changes.” McMurtrie, along with Policy Director Lara Zarowsky, will change the organization’s name to Washington Innocence Project and become an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

When asked what that might look like, Zarowsky chimed in with enthusiasm. “Physically, we’ll stay here in the law school for now,” she said, “but we’re looking for a place where we can house ourselves, perhaps in the corner of a law firm in town.”

Zarowsky, who sports a friendly smile and witty demeanor, sits next to McMurtrie and says, “The cases are driving the change.” She added that with the name change, they hope to foster a better understanding of the work they do. 

Zarowsky’s achievements and her work for IPNW could fill another article on the subject altogether, including her tireless work at the Washington Legislature, where this year she helped pass a bill under which, among other things, prosecutors will be mandated to track “incentivized witnesses,” or in more casual terms, “snitches.” The bill will be signed into law by the time this issue goes to press.

The announcement of the new name goes official on June 14 at the “Stand for Innocence” event — the project’s annual fundraiser. And just as IPNW began in 1997, it is fitting that with the rollout of the name change, Barry Scheck will return to Seattle and serve as the event’s keynote speaker. 

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