After leaving law enforcement, working cases as a criminal defense investigator opened Steven Mason’s eyes about wrongful convictions and prompted him to volunteer as a pro-bono innocence investigator.
“Indigence is frequently associated with injustice, and the quality of justice suffers as a result.”
—Arizona Justice Project
Imagine waking up in a prison cell day in and day out, decade after decade, for a crime you didn’t commit. You’ve lost your career, your sense of self-worth, and perhaps even your family. Do you think this couldn’t happen to you?
Since 1989, according to data published in the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,200 people have been legally exonerated of crimes of which they’d been convicted. Many of these people had been sentenced to extraordinary prison terms or even death. Faulty eyewitness identifications, lying jailhouse informants, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, bad forensic science, and other atrocities all played a part in their erroneous convictions.
Fortunately for these victims of what many consider to be the “greatest legal system in the world,” several innocence projects exist throughout the United States. Established as a not-for-profit in 1998, the Arizona Justice Project became the fifth organization in the country to focus its mission on providing representation to indigent inmates; as its name implies, this organization represents inmates in Arizona whose legitimate claims of innocence or manifest injustice have gone unheard. Since its inception, the AJP has received and responded to more than 6,000 requests for assistance, subsequently successfully investigating, litigating, and freeing 24 people from the clutches of injustice.
For the Arizona Justice Project, the long roll call of individuals exonerated of crimes include names such as Louis Taylor (murder, 42 years lost); Betty Smithey (murder, 49 years lost); Billy Macumber (murder, 38 years lost); Louis Harper (drug-related crimes, 22 years lost); and Ray Krone (murder, 10 years lost). [Click on their names to read their wrongful conviction stories.]
In order to qualify for the AJP’s assistance, applicants must meet all three of the following requirements:
- Must be serving time for an Arizona conviction or federal conviction stemming from an incident in Arizona
- Must have a claim of actual innocence or manifest injustice
- Cannot currently be represented by an attorney or be entitled to an attorney at public expense
Once an inmate has completed a questionnaire and is deemed to have met the three eligibility requirements, the review team at the Arizona Justice Project—which includes AJP staff persons, a volunteer lawyer, law students from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, and private investigators—reviews the claim to determine whether there are legal grounds for the case to proceed. If the team determines that the case warrants further investigation, the case is assigned.
My First Pro Bono Case
Prior to becoming an Arizona-licensed private investigator, I was a career state and federal law enforcement criminal investigator. My belief during that period of my life was that our criminal justice system rarely convicted an innocent person. Whenever I heard about someone who was convicted and later exonerated, I assumed that they won their release on a technicality or because of some random act of prosecutorial misconduct.
After I became a private investigator, my background in law enforcement quickly led to my working criminal defense investigations. As I diligently executed my duties, I was shocked to learn just how many innocent people were entangled in our criminal justice system. At the end of the workday, the names and faces of those whom I called “clients” stayed with me and, at times, kept me awake at night. Mercifully, many of my investigations have resulted in cases being dismissed or criminal charges being greatly reduced. I knew I had the power and energy to do more.
At the end of the workday, the names and faces of those whom I called “clients” stayed with me and, at times, kept me awake at night…I knew I had the power and the energy to do more.
In 2017, I contacted the Arizona Justice Project to inquire about volunteering. After meeting with attorneys and staff members and attending several of their training seminars and charity events, I was assigned my first case.
To maintain client confidentiality, I cannot go into too many specifics, but I can disclose that the case involved a young man who had been convicted of murder. The pertinent case documents to be reviewed included more than 1,000 pages of police reports, trial transcripts, audio interviews, etc. My excitement at being a member of the team was suddenly tempered by a sense of panic as I wrestled with a very real issue: As a private investigator who routinely worked 70-hour workweeks at my own agency, how would I find the time to also diligently fulfill my new—pro bono— responsibilities?
As the case progressed, I spent many evenings and weekends reading documents, reviewing evidence at the courthouse, locating and interviewing witnesses, and meeting regularly with my team members at the AJP. After many months, something magical happened: No, the client was not exonerated, nor was his sentence reduced. Instead, the client found a new sense of spiritual calmness, as our working relationship with him brought him to accept his own responsibility for his role in the crime for the first time. And rather than turning bitter and inward, filed with rage (as so many others in similar circumstances do), the client found God and a sense of self-worth. To my mind, the mission was accomplished.
There’s More Work to Do
Not every innocence investigation leads to an exoneration. But when my first case with the AJP came to an end, I felt proud that our work had helped a man who had wrestled with his demons for many years come to grips with his own reality. But I can’t help but wonder how many more Louis Taylors or Ray Krones are still out there—innocent people behind bars, the best years of their lives wasted.
As private investigators, attorneys, and members of the public at large, we have the power and moral obligation to do more. Whether we donate money to these important organizations or use our skill set to lend a much-needed helping hand, we can give a voice to those who have been forgotten.
I strongly encourage all who read this to research the innocence organization closest to where they live and then consider helping in any way they can. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
About the Author:
Private Investigator Steven Mason of Mason Investigative Solutions is a former federal criminal investigator and certified Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Adjunct Instructor. Mr. Mason’s curriculum vitae has been accepted by the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, approving him to conduct federal criminal defense investigations.
State and Regional Innocence Projects:
In addition to The Innocence Project, there are many university-based and regional innocence organizations around the country that represent inmates and educate legal professionals about investigating and litigating innocence claims. This list is by no means exhaustive; for a more complete listing of these organizations, see The Innocence Network.
More About Wrongful Convictions and Innocence Investigations:
“Innocence Lost,” by Pamela Colloff (Texas Monthly)
“The Rising Tide of Wrongful Convictions,” by Lara Bazelon (Longreads)
“The Confession Tapes: Q&A with Filmmaker Kelly Loudenberg,” by Kim Green (PursuitMag)
“For Valentino Dixon, a Wrong Righted,” by Max Adler (Golf Digest)