Nonprofit Helps Friends and Families of Wrongfully Convicted
Nonprofit helps friends, families of wrongfully convicted
Sunday, April 24, 2005By Terry Judd
CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER
Even though it's used just for storage, there's a room a few steps from Doug Tjapkes' office that he finds himself drawn to.
The single-entry door is oddly narrow and low. And the room itself has equally odd proportions -- 8 feet long, 5 feet wide, with a 9-foot ceiling. There is no window and the construction is cinder block.
"You only have to stand in here a minute or so to understand what being incarcerated must be like," Tjapkes said, glancing at the ceiling and its dim lighting. "I can't stand being here for long. At least we can get out."
The room is a former cell in what once was the Muskegon County Jail off Muskegon Avenue in downtown Muskegon. The building was built in 1948 as a state-of-the-art jail, complete with 2-foot-thick walls. But only seven years after its opening, the facility was closed because four prisoners escaped within a month and the state declared it was improperly designed. The building later was used by the Muskegon County Museum and Community Mental Health before being sold to Manpower Inc. It now is the new home for Innocent, a nonprofit organization to help the wrongfully convicted.
Tjapkes recently moved the Innocent office to Muskegon from Grand Rapids after space was offered to the organization at no cost by Jerry Horn, owner of Manpower offices in West Michigan. Through Manpower, Tjapkes has free space, utilities and access to the copier.
For Tjapkes, having an office in a former county jail is more than ironic.
"I think it's rather fitting, don't you?" he said.
Tjapkes, 68, a broadcast journalist who once owned a Grand Haven radio station and most recently sold church organs, formed Innocent four years ago to provide support and encouragement to families, friends and supporters of people they claim have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.
Tjapkes said there could be as many as 200,000 people in prison in the United States who have been convicted of crimes they didn't commit.
While Innocent does not get involved in trying to determine a person's guilt or innocence, it offers advice and assistance to people trying to win an inmate's freedom.
In the future, Tjapkes said he hopes staff will be able to travel to communities where supporters of an inmate live. Once there, Innocent would help form a citizens committee, encourage grass-roots support and establish relations with local media and churches. Officials also would help distribute information on the case.
But for the time being, Tjapkes is the only paid staffer and serves as Innocent president. The organization is run by an eight-person board and has an annual budget of roughly $100,000 from donations. Tjapkes spends much of his days responding to letters and e-mails and sending information to friends and family of those who believe they are wrongly convicted and incarcerated.
Tjapkes also is working on an Innocent-sponsored book detailing his friendship with former inmate Maurice Carter and efforts used to try to overturn his conviction. Last year, Carter's life sentence was commuted for medical reasons. Carter, who always maintained his innocence in the 1973 shooting and wounding of an off-duty Benton Harbor police officer, spent almost 29 years in Michigan prisons and died from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver three months after his release.
Tjapkes, who spearheaded the grass-roots movement to get Carter freed, said Innocent is a direct outgrowth of that 10-year effort to free Carter.
"With all of the things the Maurice Carter citizens committee did, we had a track record, we knew what worked and what didn't," Tjapkes said. "And with my background in news, we knew how to write press releases and attract media coverage. We took what we learned and have applied it to Innocent."
Keith Findley, co-director of the University of Wisconsin Law School Innocent Project, saw Tjapkes in action dealing with the Maurice Carter case.
"Doug was the best friend Maurice Carter could have had," Findley recalled. "He really kept things moving. He was persistent and was determined. He was able to keep the case on the front burner and was able to walk the fine line between pushing too hard and not pushing enough."
Findley said citizens groups like the one formed for Maurice Carter are rare. He sees a need for an organization like Innocent to help friends and family of the wrongly convicted and to attract the attention of innocence projects.
"Organizations like that help bring attention to cases and get people involved in them," he said. "It also creates a climate in a community in which it is possible for a case to be taken seriously."
Innocent was formed in July 2001, with Carter named executive director. Tjapkes remembers that Carter had grand plans for the organization -- in many ways, too grand. Carter wanted Innocent to actively determine the guilt or innocence of a prisoner, actively work for the prisoner's release, then work to find the released prisoner a job.
Tjapkes said Innocent simply does not have the
resources to be that kind of organization. Instead, it works only on cases that have been reviewed by innocence project groups. Innocence projects typically are affiliated with law or journalism schools, and students are used to investigate wrongful conviction cases. Some innocence projects are run through private law firms taking active stances against social injustice.
"We decided the simplest thing we could do is work with innocence projects because we don't have any procedures in place to screen inmates," he said. "We get applications every day. But the only case we will take on with public relations to churches and the media through a grass-roots campaign would be those where we are invited in by a bona fide innocence project."
Innocent has taken on about a dozen cases and has offered assistance at various stages. In some cases, the organization has simply assisted in press releases or billboards. In other cases, Innocent has taken a more active role.
"We have one inmate on death row in Texas and his advocate is in England, so we have to be more involved," he said. "In another, we got Court TV interested. Rubin Carter also has expressed interest in cases."
Rubin Hurricane Carter is the former executive director of the Toronto-based Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, who took an active interest in the Maurice Carter case. The two were not related.
Rubin Carter was the top contender for the World Middleweight title until he was convicted of murder in Patterson, N.J., in 1966. He was convicted of entering a bar with an accomplice to kill the bartender and a patron. He spent 20 years in prison until he was released in 1985 by a federal judge who concluded the conviction was based on faulty testimony.
"Our victories are not getting someone out," Tjapkes said. "We consider it a victory if they are getting one step closer to getting out. If we can get them hooked up with an innocence project, that is a huge victory. They are on their way then. If we can get them hooked up with Court TV, if we can get Rubin Carter interested and hold a press conference, then those are big steps.
"In Maurice's case, I was with him 10 years. It took four years to get an innocence project interested and another six years before he was freed."
But the role of Innocent has evolved. Faced with dozens of inquiries daily, Innocent has become a clearinghouse to direct inmates, and their friends and family, to the proper resources. The goal of Innocent is to direct inmates to one of the roughly 50 innocence project organizations nationwide that have the staff and resources to examine individual cases to determine merit.
"So many people who were contacting us don't know where to go. These inquiries have broadened our scope to the point we have become a triage center. Everything that comes in here we respond to. You can't believe how many letters of thanks we get simply because we responded."
Part of that response is to send out a letter of acknowledgment and information on innocence projects in their particular area, along with a list of contacts. Those who inquire also are sent a book written by the Rev. Al Hoksbergen of Ferrysburg that lays out the serious problems inmates face and the role God plays in dealing with these adversities.
Tjapkes sees the role of Innocent expanding. He said he is in conversations with the former president of a small southeast Michigan company who is in prison and is expected to be released in two years. Tjapkes said this individual wants to form a new company that would exclusively hire former inmates. In another case, a medical professional has contacted Innocent to offer inmate help in obtaining medical attention.
"This is part of Maurice Carter's dream that we might expand," Tjapkes said.
Tjapkes said he is excited about the potential for Innocent and hopes the organization can grow as it fine tunes its fund-raising efforts and grant writing.
"Every day it's exciting to walk into the place," he said. "There is an e-mail message, there is some challenge, there is a letter from someone needing help. Frankly, I can't wait to get here every day. I just love it."