New help for those wrongfully convicted in Delaware

Elmer Daniels is one of just a handful of people exonerated in Delaware after being wrongfully convicted. The Innocence Project Delaware is working to exonerate more people. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Elmer Daniels is one of just a handful of people exonerated in Delaware after being wrongfully convicted. The Innocence Project Delaware is working to exonerate more people. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Elmer Daniels spent nearly 40 years of his life in a Delaware prison on a rape conviction. Daniels, a Black man, was convicted by an all-white jury in 1980, when he was 18 years old. That conviction was dismissed in 2018 after his new lawyer argued that evidence of Daniels’ innocence never saw the light of day, including fingerprints that did not match Daniels’ and false testimony from a teenage witness.

Daniels is free now, and advocating for legislation that would provide $50,000 for every year someone wrongfully convicted spends in prison.

Efforts to help others like Daniels, and prevent more people from unjustly losing years of their lives inside prison, are now underway via the newly formed Innocence Project Delaware.

“It alters not only the individual’s life, but their family, everyone that’s surrounding them,” said Megan Davies, the project’s executive director. “It really negatively impacts our system to hear something so egregious has occurred. We want to have a fair and just system.”

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, just three people convicted in Delaware were later exonerated and released over the past 30 years. That’s way below Pennsylvania with 78 and New Jersey with 39.

That discrepancy is part of the reason for the launch of Innocence Project Delaware. Davies said she’s not sure how many wrongful convictions there have been in the state, but just three exonerations is way too low.

“It’s not because Delaware has this magical fairy dust, that when you get into the state limits of Delaware we’re not suffering from the same limitations in the criminal justice system that every other state in the country suffers from that has led to these cases of wrongful conviction,” she said. “It’s because we’ve fallen behind in criminal reform initiatives and seeking out these cases and correcting them.”

In addition to reviewing cases for people currently in prison, the group will advocate for reforms including requiring interrogations to be recorded, granting access to police disciplinary records and requiring evidence to be better preserved.

“We don’t have all these protected practices in place, and we’re starting to need them more than ever,” she said. “We need to have meaningful reform so that we can trust in our justice system the way that we should, and that guilty people are the ones convicted.”

She expects to review about 50 cases per year. Because Delaware has not previously had a group actively working to overturn wrongful convictions, that number could be higher in the first year due to a backlog. Davies will work with some students at Widener University’s Delaware Law School to identify people currently held in prison who may be innocent.

“I applaud the launch of Innocence Delaware,” said Delaware Law School Dean Rod Smolla. “The mission of Innocence Delaware advances the core foundational principles of our criminal justice system. The Delaware Law School is delighted to be partnering with Innocence Delaware.”

The Delaware chapter is one of more than 65 Innocence Projects working to exonerate people wrongfully convicted around the world.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal