Oliver Burnette’s reality is a constant reminder for him that even well-intentioned laws and the pursuit of justice can sometimes go extremely wrong.
Burnette, a 1990 graduate of Lee’s Summit High School, is the executive director of the not-for-profit Midwest Innocence Project (MIP). The Kansas City-based organization investigates and litigates cases of those wrongfully convicted of a crime in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas.
Burnette has a small staff of five and a boatload of cases — nine currently in litigation and 600 more on a waiting list.
On average, Burnette said, it takes seven to 10 years to exonerate an innocent prisoner, at an average cost of $325,000. The MIP’s budget is derived mostly from community donations.
“MIP is 100 percent funded right now by private donations,” Burnette said. “And that’s hard. It takes a lot to pay lawyers and investigators. DNA testing is expensive.”
MIP’s most prominent litigation at the moment is the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who is currently in prison after being convicted for murder.
Avery is the subject of the growing-in-stature Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” in which a group of filmmakers explore the merits of Avery’s long-standing claim of innocence.
Avery previously spent 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in a separate case. He claimed he was framed for murder by the same law enforcement agency in Wisconsin that was the subject of a lawsuit he filed against them for his previous incarceration.
Tricia Bushnell, legal director for MIP, is assisting as local counsel for Avery. Bushnell, formerly an assistant clinical professor with the Wisconsin Innocence Project and a licensed Wisconsin attorney, was retained by the Chicago-based law firm of Kathleen T. Zellner and Associates.
Bushnell was unavailable for an interview in regard to the Avery case.
During her time with the WIP, Bushnell represented Joseph Frey, who was convicted in 1991 of raping a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student. Frey’s conviction was vacated and he was freed in 2013 after new DNA testing identified the real perpetrator.
“She is very well-known and respected in the state of Wisconsin,” Burnette said.
Burnette said that as a whole, the organization believes that 99.9 percent of police officers and prosecutors are good, but wrongful convictions can and do happen.
“We are flawed as humans,” Burnette said. “We could never have a perfect system.”
Burnette added that the Avery case is just another in a series of cases that show flaws in the judicial system.
“His case is indicative of what we see across the board,” Burnette said. “We are the greatest country in the world because we have the ability to see those flaws and fix them.”
Bushnell, the MIP and the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence at the University of Kansas School of Law, helped free Floyd Bledsoe from a Kansas prison in December after he spent 16 years behind bars for murder.
Bledsoe was convicted with the murder of his sister-in-law, despite a verified alibi and no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. During Bledsoe’s trial, the state of Kansas rested its case in large part on Bledsoe’s brother, Tom, who committed suicide in his car in Bonner Springs, Kan. on Nov. 9.
Tom Bledsoe admitted in a suicide note that he was responsible for the crime in which his brother was convicted.
“The truth is always stranger than fiction,” Burnette said. “Some of these cases are just travesties of justice.”
Brunette was in the courtroom the day Floyd Bledsoe was freed, a sight that left an unforgettable impression on Burnette .
“I have a photo on my phone of them unshackling his legs,” Burnette said. “After 16 years he walked out of the courthouse. It’s a weird, goose-bump feeling that you can be a part of something like that.”