Katie Monroe is speeding through the rugged mountains north of Salt Lake City, a half hour late and a little bit lost. She’s here to see a woman she recently helped free from prison after 17 years—a woman who was locked up for a murder she didn’t commit. That nightmare is one Monroe knows all too well: 20 years ago, her own mother was wrongly convicted of murder. And today, although Monroe’s eyes are on the road—“We almost hit a pigeon!” she gasps—her mind is on the past, retracing the personal odyssey that has brought her to this lonely, snow-peaked pass in Utah’s Wasatch Range. “It’s really easy to convict someone of something they didn’t do,” Monroe says, nibbling fried polenta from a take-out box on her lap as she drives. “Freeing them—that’s the challenge.”
Monroe, 47, should know: She is the director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in Salt Lake City, a small, mostly volunteer band of attorneys, law professors and students dedicated to freeing wrongfully imprisoned people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Monroe is what her profession calls an innocence lawyer, one you don’t call until you’ve been stuck in jail for years—sometimes decades—and have used up all the usual appeals. Even then, you have to be lucky: Of the 200 prisoners a year who write seeking help, only a handful have cases that the center deems strong enough to take on.
For lawyers like Monroe, the hours are long, the pay is low, and the victories, though enormously gratifying, are few. Taking a drive through the mountains to visit a client is a good way to unwind, and Monroe talks a blue streak the whole way. “One thing I learned from Mom’s case,” she says quietly, as if to herself, “is that if you’re in the battle for the long haul, you’ve got to stay sane. You can’t let it take you under, and you can’t be afraid. Because you’re going up against the government. And you get shut down far more often than you get a break.”
There was a time, before she opted for law school at Virginia’s George Mason University, when Monroe dreamed of a career in music or on the stage. She certainly knows how to make an entrance: Last October, speaking at Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., Monroe swirled into the auditorium in a form-fitting black-and-white dress and knee-high black boots, walked briskly to the front of the room and dived into a rapid-fire, fact-spiked talk about wrongful incarceration that left her audience of 100 law students, professors and judges nearly breathless. Monroe admits that even she has trouble keeping up with her thoughts: Sometimes she’ll hop out of the shower, grab a tube of lipstick and scrawl an idea on her bathroom mirror.
The battle to free America’s wrongfully imprisoned is not for the easily daunted. For starters, no one really knows how many innocent people are currently incarcerated in the U.S., says Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is a leading expert on wrongful convictions. The only solid statistic is how many have been exonerated, which Gross says represents only a small fraction of those held in error. He has identified at least 2,061 prisoners who’ve been exonerated since 1989. A shocking number had been on death row: 140 men facing execution have been cleared since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Fifty-seven of the exonerated are women; the longest serving among them, Betty Tyson of Rochester, New York, put in 25 years for murder before a court ruled in 1998 that police had withheld evidence that would have cleared her.
Many of the wrongfully imprisoned are poor men who are black or Latino, but the overall number encompasses men and women of every race, ethnicity and income level, from high school dropouts to well-educated professionals. What they tend to have in common are inadequate lawyers, sloppy police or crime-lab work and eyewitnesses who mistakenly (or deliberately) pointed a finger at them. In a legal system that often assumes it is fail-safe, even prisoners with compelling evidence of innocence are frequently unable to hurdle procedural barriers to a new hearing.