Proof of Innocence
This summer, Michael Riccio '13 is working with Centurion Ministries to prove the innocence of many falsely convicted people across the nation as part of an internship funded by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. Centurion Ministries, based in Princeton, N.J., aims to help those who are serving life or death sentences for rape or murder. The organization is different from other innocence groups in that it does not require DNA evidence, is not made up of lawyers and will take cases anywhere in the United States or Canada.
Since it began, Centurion Ministries has taken on 85 cases and freed 49 prisoners, with 24 cases still pending. The cases have come from remote places, such as Saskatoon, Canada, as well as major American cities such as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
While working with the organization, which is run by six full time staff members, Riccio’s job is to take cases that have passed an initial screening process, gather police reports through Freedom of Information Act requests, write to the inmates and obtain trial information from attorneys. He then summarizes the information he gathers and highlights potential avenues for further investigation.
Going through all of the available information on an inmate, he says, paints a picture of a life that he could not have imagined. “It is impossible not to have compassion for these people,” Riccio says, “given the situations into which they were born and their current lives in prison.” Finally, at the end of the summer, Riccio will meet with Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey, and other full-time employees, to discuss what else might be done and consider whether the organization should formally take on the case.
Riccio wants to use the law to help people, which is what drew him to Centurion Ministries. “Somehow our system of law, and the actors within it, have been able to justify the wrongful conviction of unspeakable numbers of people, sentencing them to a life of limited human rights,” he says.
Helping to reinforce his commitment to the work are media reports he has seen on former prisoners Centurion Ministries has helped. Among them was a recent feature on NBC’s Dateline about Barry Beach, who was convicted of murder in Poplar, Montana, in 1984. Centurion Ministries took on the case and proved his innocence through testimony given by a number of witnesses at a hearing in 2011. That led to a judge granting a new trial and to Beach’s subsequent release.
Riccio finds these kinds of stories inspiring. “The work I am doing now might turn into really helping someone down the road,” he says.
—Jack Hasler ’15