Law professors honored for work that freed innocent man from prison

Thursday, April 21, 2016

KU Law Professors Alice Craig, Elizabeth Cateforis and Jean Phillips

LAWRENCE – Three University of Kansas law professors were recognized this week for demonstrating “compassion, dedication and tenacity” through nearly a decade of work to free an innocent man from prison.

Jean Phillips, Elizabeth Cateforis and Alice Craig of KU Law’s Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies received the Sean O’Brien Freedom Award from the Midwest Innocence Project during its annual Faces of Innocence benefit Tuesday evening in Kansas City, Missouri.

The three were singled out for their leading role in winning the exoneration of Floyd Bledsoe, who spent 16 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Students and faculty in KU Law’s Project for Innocence worked on Floyd’s case for nearly a decade before new DNA evidence and a suicide note confession from his brother cleared his name.

“The best feeling a lawyer can have is walking out of court or prison with an innocent client who is finally being freed after a decade or more of wrongful incarceration. Everybody would love to have that feeling, but few lawyers are willing to do what it takes to get there,” said Sean O’Brien, associate professor at the UMKC School of Law and the award’s namesake. “The work of Jean, Beth and Alice reminds me of something Mother Teresa said: ‘There are no great deeds, only ordinary deeds, done with great love.’ That’s what these lawyers are all about.”

Through its partnership with KU Law, the Midwest Innocence Project provided funding for new DNA testing in Floyd’s case.   

“The MIP working with KU Law is a model of what legal partnerships can be,” said Oliver Burnette, executive director of the MIP. “Since the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence is such a recognized source of expertise and dedication, MIP’s resources and legal team can act as a force-multiplier for the good work already being done.”

All three honorees graduated from the KU School of Law in the 1990s and worked on the Project for Innocence – then known as the Defender Project – during law school. Phillips has served as director of the project since 1999. She hired Cateforis as a supervising attorney that same year, and Craig joined the team in 2004.  

“I had the good fortune to learn from David Gottlieb, and he taught me the dangers of passing judgment and failing to see that human beings are worthy of respect and compassion. I left that experience knowing that I was put here to battle against simply putting people in prison and forgetting about them,” Phillips said. “We look forward to a time when we actually work ourselves out of a job. One client at a time – one Floyd Bledsoe at a time – we get a little bit closer to that goal.”

The Project for Innocence was founded by former KU Law Professor Paul E. Wilson as the Defender Project in 1965 to help prisoners who otherwise might not receive legal representation. Working under the supervision of faculty attorneys, students in the clinic represent state and federal prisoners in appellate and post-conviction litigation in state and federal courts. The program has won more than 40 direct appeals, constitutional challenges and actual innocence cases since 2008.

The Midwest Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Network, is dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. The MIP partners with KU Law’s Project for Innocence and other regional innocence organization by providing legal and financial support to enhance local exoneration efforts.

Floyd Bledsoe released after his 2000 Jefferson County murder conviction is overturned

"After 16 years behind bars for a murder his brother eventually took responsibility for, Floyd Bledsoe is a free man.


Bledsoe, who has been represented by attorneys with the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at the University of Kansas Law School and Midwest Innocence Project, smiled during much of Tuesday’s proceedings and hugged teary-eyed well-wishers after the judge agreed to release him. A crowd of roughly 50 people cheered inside the courtroom when the judge’s decision was announced."

Judge overturns Bledsoe's murder conviction, released after 16 years behind bars

A Kansas man who had served more than 15 years of a life sentence for the 1999 shooting death of his sister-in-law is a free man, after a county judge overturned his conviction.

Floyd Bledsoe was ordered released Tuesday after attorneys presented new evidence that implicated his late brother in the death of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann.


Judge overturns Kansas man's conviction in sister-in-law's 1999 killing

 "A Kansas man who served more than 15 years of a life sentence for the 1999 shooting death of his sister-in-law was freed Tuesday after a judge overturned his conviction when new evidence implicated the man's brother as the likely killer.


The decision came after a Jefferson County Sheriff's investigator testified that Bledsoe's brother, Thomas, killed himself last month after DNA evidence implicated him in the death of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann. Thomas Bledsoe left behind suicide letters admitting he killed the girl.


Judge throws out 2000 murder conviction, frees Oskaloosa man after 15 years in prison

"Floyd Scott Bledsoe was set free Tuesday after a Jefferson County judge overturned his life sentence for the 1999 murder of his 14-year-old sister-in-law.

New evidence, including DNA evidence and three suicide letters written by his brother Tom Bledsoe, indicate that Floyd Bledsoe was not the killer. Floyd Bledsoe spent more than 15 years in prison.


University of Kansas law student helps overturn murder conviction

 "A murder conviction was overturned and it was in large part because of the work by a University of Kansas law student and Shawnee native.

Abby West spent more than 100 hours on Kimberly Sharp’s case with the Project for Innocence.

On July 2, 2006 authorities found the body of David Owen near the Kansas River in Topeka.

Owen called himself an advocate for the homeless and often tried to convince them to reunite with their families.

KU Innocence Project claims win in appeal case of woman convicted in high-profile Topeka murder

"As Abby West researched similar cases to prepare for the federal appeal of a woman convicted in a high-profile Topeka murder case, she encountered a recurring theme.

'I read a lot of cases where people didn’t win,' said West, a May Kansas University law school graduate.

But for defendant Kimberly Sharp, West’s efforts resulted in a different outcome — and a big success for the KU law school’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.


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