MORGANTOWN – Less than a month since a man who spent 20 years in prison for raping his 5-year-old daughter was freed, the director of the West Virginia Innocence Project explained why the program does what it does.
"Many people think that when someone is convicted, they must be guilty," Valena Beety, project director and professor of law West Virginia University, said during an email interview with The West Virginia Record. "But DNA evidence has shown that our criminal justice system makes mistakes. People who are innocent are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, and sentenced to time in prison."
Joseph Lavigne with members of his family, shortly after his release from Huttonsville Correctional Center after serving 20 years in prison.
Which makes clear the mission of WVU College of Law's Innocence Project, Beety said.
"Our work is to exonerate these individuals, to reunite them with their families and communities, and prove their innocence," she said.
One of the project's clients, Joseph Lavigne Jr., was granted parole and released from Huttonsville Correctional Center on Nov. 15, five days short of the 21st anniversary of his 1996 conviction in Putnam Circuit Court. Though his daughter never identified him as her attacker, the jury found him guilty of first-degree sexual assault, child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury and incest.
Lavigne began serving a 22- to 60-year sentence, and his appeals began. He steadfastly denied he committed the crime.
In April 2011, a Putnam Circuit Court judge vacated the conviction, ordered Lavigne be released and granted him a new trial. The court cited three errors committed by the trial court, that a jury instruction had relieved the prosecution of its burden of proof, that Lavigne had been limited to four character witnesses and that there had been insufficient evidence to establish the his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Lavigne never got his new trial. The day before Thanksgiving the following year, the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's order, saying the lower court had "abused its discretion in granting a new trial to Mr. Lavigne without the proper demonstration of constitutional error". Lavigne was returned to prison the following week, by which time he already had served 15 years.
It was at about that time that members of the Lavigne family first met with West Virginia University's Innocence Project representatives. The law clinic at WVU is staffed by third-year law students, as well as law school faculty, with support from the law firm Wilson, Frame & Metheney, to provide free legal representation to people with meritorious claims of innocence. The project advocates for the kind of reforms that hopefully will prevent wrongful convictions.
The West Virginia Innocence Project accepted Lavigne's case and soon was joined by the national Innocence Project, which agreed to co-represent him.
Lavigne's appeals ended in June 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not hear his case. He was paroled more than five years later, after his daughter testified before the parole board that her father had not raped her. Lavigne is with his family now and the West Virginia Innocence Project is still working to get his conviction reversed.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for innocent people to be convicted of crimes they didn't commit, Beety said. "A low estimate is that 5 to 9 percent of inmates are in prison for a crime they did not commit," she said.
"Flawed forensic science, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions are just a few of the things we now know contribute to wrongful convictions."
Lavigne's case is not the only one the project is working on, Beety said.
"West Virginia Innocence Project is currently litigating DNA cases, like the multi co-defendant convictions of Nathan Barnett, Philip Barnett and Justin Black in Cabell County, and arson cases, like the case of Sam Anstey in Fayette County," she said.