But if you’re fortunate enough to get on Monroe’s short list, you just might walk out that prison door. In the past year, her tiny organization has won two high-profile exonerations in its home state of Utah, and her influence stretches far beyond state lines. Since becoming the center’s director in 2006, Monroe has helped persuade skeptical lawmakers in neighboring Nevada and Wyoming to follow the lead of Utah and most other states by giving inmates access to DNA evidence that wasn’t available at trial and could clear them. In another major advance, she helped pass Utah’s 2008 innocence law, which made the state one of only four jurisdictions (the three others are Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.) that give prisoners a fresh chance—after traditional appeals are exhausted—to prove their innocence even without DNA findings, provided that compelling new evidence has emerged since their conviction. That’s a crucial legal opening, because DNA is available in only 5 to 10 percent of criminal cases, either because the perpetrator didn’t leave any trace at the scene or because police failed to preserve it. Another notable advance under the law: Utah’s exonerees not only are freed but also are eligible to receive compensation for their years behind bars—roughly $34,000 a year for up to 15 years.
In part because of Monroe, flinty old Utah is now a beacon for the national Innocence Network, an affiliation of more than 50 independently run pro bono organizations across the U.S. Monroe is quick to point out she was only one person in a remarkable group that wrote and won passage of the 2008 law, an unlikely alliance that included conservative lawmakers, an influential assistant attorney general and two crusading law professors. But the Utah law, perhaps the most generous of its kind in the nation, is just one of several key legal advances that Monroe has helped secure for innocent prisoners caught in legal limbo. She is also working with police and prosecutors across the West to prevent wrongful convictions before they happen—encouraging them to electronically record interrogations, preserve biological evidence and improve safeguards against eyewitness misidentification. “It makes an enormous difference when a conservative state like Utah takes these steps,” says attorney Barry Scheck, cofounder of the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit legal clinic based at New York City’s Cardozo School of Law that has spearheaded the innocence movement since 1992. “And it’s a testament to Katie’s advocacy. She’s not someone who goes for sentiment or cheap emotions. She tries to win you over with the logic of the argument.” (The Innocence Project formed the Innocence Network and approves applications to join; both Scheck and Monroe sit on the network’s board.)
For sure, Monroe has an uncanny ability to find common ground with people who could hardly be described as like-minded, from conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who served on a blue-ribbon court-reform panel that Monroe helped coordinate, to prosecutors, crime victims and police officials, some of whom are her closest allies. “Katie is very passionate about what she believes, but she would never purposely twist information for effect,” says Linda Krueger, executive director of the criminalistics bureau at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who has worked with Monroe on innocence policy and legislation. “Sometimes these lawyers have a bad image, that maybe they’re trying to get some guilty party free. But that’s just not who Katie is.”