One year after launch Wisconsin Latino Exoneration Program investigating cases

In July 2016, the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) — a program focused on exonerating individuals who were wrongly convicted of crimes — launched the Wisconsin Latino Exoneration Program (WLEP) in an effort to free incorrectly imprisoned Latino individuals. 

The WLEP is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will allow the program to take on cases where DNA testing could help prove the innocence of Latino individuals, according to Maria De Arteaga, a staff attorney working with the WLEP.

The WLEP was founded by its director, Cristina Bordé, who recognized disparities in the number of exonerations for Latino/a’s when compared to African American or Caucasians, according to De Arteaga. 

“[Bordé came to Wisconsin] with experience of understanding limitations of language issues, translation issues, and realized that there was just a disparity of the amount of exonerations for Latino inmates in Wisconsin, compared to other [races],” the staff attorney said.

Typical causes of wrongful conviction, such as eyewitness identification errors and prosecutorial misconduct, are common in cases involving Latino/a’s, but often  there are further complications, De Arteaga explained. Interpretation errors, witnesses not wanting to come forward out of fear of being deported and a lack of culturally competent legal assistants are other causes of wrongful conviction cited by the staff attorney. 

Nationally, Latino/s’s are exonerated at a lower rate than African American or Caucasian, according to De Arteaga. Aforementioned causes such as interpretation errors may contribute to this.

Over the last year, the WLEP has placed an emphasis on outreach through Spanish media programming and mailings to Latino/a inmates to try and make their services available to those previously unfamiliar with the program. De Arteaga explained that unfamiliarity with a program like the WIP may also explain low exoneration rates for Latino individuals.

The WLEP has received over 100 applications in the last year, and are investigating around five cases going forward, according to De Arteaga.

The grant funding the WLEP will allow for DNA testing to potentially prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted Latino/a’s . However, this can be “a really long process” because of the post-conviction litigation that is involved, De Arteaga said.

DNA exonerations are also the least common type of exoneration, as DNA testing is not available in many cases, according to De Arteaga. Of 2,061 exonerations since 1989, only 440 (or roughly 21 percent) have been DNA exonerations, according to The National Registry of Exonerations.

Funding for the WLEP remains uncertain, though, as the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is for only two years. It is unclear at this time what direction the WLEP will take at the end of the grant’s second year.

“We're hoping that we can reach a conclusion in some of these cases at the end of the two years ... but it actually would be atypical to conclude cases that quickly,” De Arteaga said.