The holiday season is a time to spread joy, and the Arizona Justice Project wants to make sure those who are imprisoned aren’t forgotten during the holiday season.
Arizona Justice Project staff and volunteers gathered Tuesday at the Beus Center for Law and Society at Arizona State University’s Downtown campus. Community members were invited to spread holiday cheer by writing individual messages on cards that will be delivered to people the advocacy group believes are unjustly imprisoned.
The Arizona-based advocacy group works to free the wrongfully imprisoned by reinvestigating old cases and supporting them after they reestablish lives outside incarceration.
“It’s so fulfilling and heartbreaking doing what we do,” said Kelly Dodd, who is a paralegal with the advocacy group.
About 20 community members sat around cafeteria-style tables with pens and colorful markers. They told stories of different people who have gone through the program while Christmas music played in the background.
The Arizona Justice Project encouraged those in attendance to write messages that included phrases such as “happiest of holidays” and “warm wishes.”
The group will deliver the cards to inmates it is in communication with in time for the holidays.
“We investigate the cases, track down witnesses and evidence, try to use advanced forensics and do whatever is necessary to support the case,” said Arizona Justice Project Executive Director Lindsay Herf. “If there is evidence (of innocence), AJP represents them in court to help (those incarcerated) get their cases overturned.”
The Arizona Justice Project has screened thousands of claims of wrongful conviction and excessive sentencing and have seen many cases overturned, according to its website.
One of the men freed with the help of the Arizona Justice Project was Louis Taylor.
Taylor was wrongfully convicted in 1970 for allegedly starting a fire that burned down the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson and claimed 29 lives. Taylor served 42 years in prison before he was released in 2013.
A reinvestigation into the case concluded that the cause of the fire could not be determined.
Arizona has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the U.S., according to a 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona.
The Arizona Justice Project partners with local law school students in reviewing cases, which provides extra help for the program as well as hands-on experience for the students.
When the wrongfully imprisoned are released, the advocacy group also provides reentry services to help them settle into life after prison.
“We’re here to provide a smooth transition, housing, skill training and job placement upon their release,” said David Kline, who is a part of the group’s reentry team.
“There’s not a lot of other services out there who do what we do,” Kline said.
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