After 38 Years Behind Bars, Bill Macumber Joins Those Freed by the Arizona Justice Project

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"But," Puzauskas says to the students, "the Arizona project isn't limited to actual innocence claims. We also look at cases where we believe there has been a fundamental miscarriage of justice.

"Just to give you an example, we had a guy apply for our help in 2008 who'd sold $20 worth of crack cocaine — one rock — to undercover police officers in South Phoenix in 1989. He was 26 at the time. He got 50 years. Five zero!"

When Larry Hammond founded the Justice Project in January 1998, it operated out of his Phoenix law office. In that first year, letters flowed in from prisoners around the state, and Hammond, his administrative assistant, and a part-time paralegal had little time and sparse funding. He contacted attorney Bob Bartels, who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and at the time was a professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

The Justice Project paired with ASU, operating at first out of the basement of the university's law library. The school relocated three or four rows of books to open the space, described as a "glorified broom closet." Law students worked between classes, paired with a professor or a volunteer private-practice mentor.

These days, ASU law students receive credit for their work through the law school's yearlong post-conviction clinic.

The clinic trains the students, and the Justice Project receives a rotating harvest of free labor, which it couldn't operate without because funding still is scarce.

About 15 percent of the project's money comes from donations, meaning the paid staff of five depends on two grants from organizations under the U.S. Department of Justice. The first is $200,000 for cases of actual innocence without DNA; the second is $1.3 million (split with the Arizona Attorney General's Office) for cases in which DNA might overturn wrongful convictions.

Hacker, in shorts and sandals most days, works DNA and non-DNA cases. Project lawyer Lindsay Herf, with surfer-girl looks, down to her gleaming smile, works only DNA cases.

Herf's most recent victory was freeing a man imprisoned for eight years after a rape conviction. At trial, the state never bothered to test the DNA evidence that later freed her client.

Most clients begin as penned names on white envelopes stamped with "ADC." Inside are synopses of their case histories and handwritten pleas for assistance.

As the new students take a break from orientation, the Justice Project's administrative assistant, Barbara Trotter, reads 10 letters that just arrived. She'll log details of each.

The Justice Project receives about 400 such letters a year, and every correspondent is mailed a questionnaire asking for case details in an effort to determine whether the convict meets the organization's requirements for help. The prisoner must be incarcerated in Arizona, have exhausted all appeals, be unable to afford a private attorney, be ineligible for a court-appointed one, and not be on death row.

About 60 applicants make it to phase two each year, which is where law students become necessary. The students hunt for records and reports, visit inmates, compile narratives, and consult with mentors or staff attorneys about the possibility of litigation.

Of those selected, fewer than 10 cases each year move to litigation. Some are passed to private firms volunteering their time.

Above the coffee maker in the back of the office, pictures of men the Justice Project has helped free are pinned on the wall. Their photos are pasted on manila folders along with words of thanks.

"Freedom finally came. Thank God [al]mighty, I'm free at last!!" wrote Louis Harper, the man sentenced to 50 years for possession and sale of the single rock of crack cocaine.

"Everything happens for a reason, and we must be on the right side of reason!" wrote Khalil Rushdan, who served nearly 15 years for a murder that the project proved his prosecutor knew he didn't commit.

As for Macumber, he left these words: "Justice, however late, is still justice."

Tire tracks proved the suspect had parked perpendicular to the Impala and let his headlights shine in on the two young lovers.

A Maricopa County medical examiner later noted that Tim McKillop was shot nearly point-blank. Joyce Sterrenberg jumped out of the driver's-side door and tried to run toward the dirt trail leading to the road. Police found a purse that remained closed and untouched on the Impala's front seat. They gathered one live round and four .45-caliber bullet casings, all of which were "reloads" (old casings with new slugs). Officers placed these in envelopes and collected several strands of hair found in the dirt 60 feet away. They didn't collect prints at the scene. They waited until they'd towed the Impala to an MCSO garage, where they lifted 15 prints.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen