Pennsylvania Innocence Project: freeing the innocent one by one

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Locked in a prison cell serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, and at times, no hope it would ever change. That’s how one Pennsylvania man spent 15 years of his life. In 1998 a jury found Gene Gilyard guilty of murder. But it was a murder he didn’t commit and didn’t even see happen. So how did the justice system fail him and what did it take to finally set him free?

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

Inside a Temple University building, law students mull through hundreds of court cases..file stacked on top of file, some dating back to the 1970s.

"It takes us several years to get through that," says legal director, Marissa Bluestine.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a non-profit organization working to get innocent people out of prison. Legal director, Marissa Bluestine says of the thousands of letters inmates send, the organization has taken on only 19 cases.

"It's not about looking for cases of injustice where there may have been a constitutional error or procedural error, we're really looking at the facts did this person commit the crime, did this person have a role in the crime," says Bluestine.

Determining innocence is no easy task. Pennsylvania's right to know law excludes all information having to do with the criminal investigation.

"It's a very, very difficult road in Pennsylvania. It's probably one of the strictest in the country," says Bluestine.

Unlike most states, in Pennsylvania, there is no independent way to get information. Bluestine and her crew just have to do their best.

"We assume that the system worked... every time. We say ok let's assume he's guilty. That's just the way we instruct our students and that's how our lead investigator works. So we go back and re-investigate the case," says Bluestine.

Nationwide on average it takes about 9 years to bring a wrongful conviction case to court. So far, in the four short years of the organization's existence, a judge has overturned convictions in three cases the Innocence Project has taken on.

"As a lawyer if you know that there's a person who's behind bars who should not be there, I don't know a lawyer who wouldn't say ok I have to do something about that," says Bluestine.

Bluestine did exactly that when it came to Gene Gilyard's case. Gene was convicted in January of 1998 of murdering a business owner in Philadelphia. A judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole... but he wasn't even at the crime scene.

"I was actually a block and a half away when this crime actually occurred. I heard the gunshots and observed perpetrators running from the scene," says Gene Gilyard.

Photo identification was the only evidence against Gene at the time. The victim's daughter identified a photo of him in 1997, two years after the shooting happened. Gene remembers the moments after police put him in handcuffs.

"It angered me that they were sitting here attempting to allude a confession from me and telling me to confess, and obviously this is something that I didn't do and could not do. So you can not confess to something that you cannot do," says Gene.

He sat in a 6 by 9 prison cell, innocent, for 15 years. Once Gene got in contact with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he realized his future looked a lot brighter than a prison cell, and that his time behind closed doors would finally come to an end.

"We decided to take his case on and he said it was like the rain turning into sunshine," says Bluestine.

Bluestine says the piece of evidence that sent Gene to prison is one of the most problematic.

"People just get it wrong, witnesses will take the stand and sound very confident and very sure that that's the person they saw and yet be inaccurate and just get it wrong and that's what happened in Gene's case," says Bluestine.

One photograph cost Gene 15 years of his life. But it took much less time than that to find the real criminal, Ricky Welborn. And when they did, Bluestine and her lead investigator were shocked by his story.

"He gave us a very detailed confession describing what he did in fact the confession starts off by saying I shot another man that day with the same gun I used to kill the victim," says Bluestine.

One confession is all it took. Welborn is currently in prison serving a life sentence for a different murder. Gene walked out of prison last November, and was greeted by the people who helped set him free.

"The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is the best thing that happened to me," says Gene.

Gene doesn't have any anger for losing 15 years of his life.

"I do not live my life based off that feeling, I'm so happy to be here today because I could have obviously stayed in prison and died for a crime that I did not do," says Gene.

Gene is now married with a newborn baby girl and was recently promoted at work. Not only does he credit Marissa and her team for his freedom, but he gave her a gift, too. The highlight of her career in court.

"And I heard her say I have my son back, now I have a son and I can't fathom not having him..for 15 years and it was hearing her say that as a mother, being able to reunite my family and it just hit the emotional note. Best day as a lawyer ever." says Bluestine.