While Clarence Harrison watched his twenties, then his thirties, pass by from the vantage point of a concrete cell, Jason Costa was growing up in New Jersey and Canada, then attending middle and high school in London.
Meeting Costa—a shaggy-haired fireball of energy who became so deeply involved in Harrison’s case that Clarence still has him on speed dial—one might imagine he was raised by liberal, anti-establishment hippies who grew their own food. In fact, Costa’s father worked for an international flavor and fragrance company; his mother was an occasional substitute teacher. While he describes his family life as fairly conservative, he says it may have been living abroad and traveling internationally that gave him a broader perspective than other kids his age.
Through his London high school, Costa was able to take an intense “study tour” course in which students immersed themselves in studying all aspects of a particular country, then went there and met with various business and civic leaders. In Costa’s case, his group went to South Africa.
“It was two months after the first elections there,” he recalls with characteristic enthusiasm over a cup of coffee at the Emory Starbucks. “It was just an incredible time to go, an amazing experience. That kind of trip changes your perspective about what your role is within the larger community.”
As an Emory undergraduate, Costa majored in computer science and interdisciplinary studies with a focus on racial and ethnic issues. He then worked for four years as an information technology consultant, based in Atlanta and traveling much of the time. But after a few years in the IT industry, Costa says he felt restless and vaguely dissatisfied, like “something was missing” from his career. Law school had long been in the back of his mind, so he applied to Emory and became house director in the SAE fraternity house so that he could afford the tuition.
Near the end of his first year of law school, Costa discovered the Georgia Innocence Project when its executive director, Aimee Maxwell, came to Emory to recruit students for summer internships. Part of a loose national network of Innocence Projects, the Georgia organization works to free prisoners who can prove they were wrongfully incarcerated. Nationwide, Innocence Projects have helped some 155 inmates be exonerated.
Despite the low pay—nothing—Maxwell interviewed a hundred students for eight internship positions.
(“I have eight chairs,” she explains.)
“I knew I wanted to work with Jason when I interviewed him,” Maxwell says. “I just thought he would be terrific, and he was.”
Costa says he weighed the opportunity to work for the Innocence Project against the $2,000 a week he could have made working at a big firm, but the experience was priceless.
“I wanted to do something worthwhile,” he says. “Trying to find people who are innocent of their crimes and help them—that’s worthwhile.”
The two-year-old organization, staffed full time only by Maxwell, relies heavily on interns to review the requests for help that flood its mailbox: since it opened for business in January 2003, the Georgia Innocence Project has received some 1,800 letters from convicts proclaiming their innocence, and has taken on seven of those as cases. Harrison’s February 2003 letter was one of the first the group ever received.
“Dear sirs, my name is Clarence Harrison. I am presently being held falsely accused of crimes I could not have committed,” he wrote. “I am seeking to vindicate myself by the only means I know how.”
The interns who read Harrison’s letter and recognized its merit were Tracy Schessler ’04C and Georgia State University Law School graduate Emily Gilbert, who is now a public defender in DeKalb County. Based on the Innocence Project’s criteria and their own gut feelings that Harrison’s claim rang true, the interns went about getting the court transcript from his trial and filed an open records request at the DeKalb County police station to obtain any evidence that might still be there. Costa and Laura Verducci, a third-year law student from GSU, joined the team soon afterward.
“It takes us at least eight months to read all the documents and investigate a case,” Maxwell says. “We’re very serious about our screening process.”
The real breakthrough in Harrison’s case came when Verducci found two slides from the 1986 victim’s rape kit when going through files at the DeKalb County district attorney’s office—an amazing discovery, particularly since Harrison had been told the kit was destroyed.
Like similar organizations around the country, the Georgia Innocence Project is currently focused on cases in which there is DNA evidence available to be tested with recent technology. In the 1980s, when Harrison was arrested, sophisticated DNA testing had not yet been developed; blood tests in his case eliminated only 12 percent of the population. Harrison was convicted largely on the basis of identification by the victim. In fact, because of Harrison’s case, Costa plans to write an article for a law journal about the dubious reliability of eyewitness accounts.
The problem for organizations such as the Innocence Project, Costa says, is that in most cases like Harrison’s, the evidence is gone. Until 2003, no law in Georgia required that such evidence be kept; systems varied widely from one police precinct to another, with no rhyme or reason to how evidence was filed and stored. The law now requires that evidence be kept for at least ten years, but for many the legislation came too late.
So when the evidence from Harrison’s arrest was unearthed, Maxwell and the Innocence Project interns began to focus intense energy on the case. They filed an “extraordinary motion for post-conviction DNA testing” with DeKalb County District Attorney Jeffrey Brickman, which was quickly granted.
Then Maxwell, Costa, and Verducci traveled to Smith State Prison to collect a DNA sample from Harrison with the help of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation—a “logistical nightmare,” according to Maxwell.
“Jason coordinated all that,” she says. “The prison would not do it. He negotiated with the prosecutor, worked with the GBI, made sure the testing and evidence went to the correct lab. He did an exceptional job and showed a high level of maturity.”
The trip to Smith was the first time any of the Inocence Project staff met Harrison. “I expected this hardened, tough guy, but he was very quiet and soft-spoken,” Costa says. “We explained everything and told him that if the testing proved him guilty, he would never have a chance at parole. He said, ‘Don’t worry. This is not for me, this is for you. I know the truth.’”
The DNA samples, swabbed from inside Harrison’s mouth, were shipped to a top forensics lab in California. There, Harrison’s DNA was examined and compared to that on the rape kit slide using technology created to identify genetic material with enough detail that it’s considered conclusive evidence in criminal law.
“Somehow I kept my faith,” Harrison says. “I just kept hoping that science had advanced enough. You watch those CSI shows and think, they can do this now. It really lifted my hopes.”
Costa and Maxwell had just experienced crushing disappointment when a test result proved beyond doubt that another client was guilty—not innocent—and they tried to keep their hopes in check as best they could. “Otherwise, your heart can get broken in every single case,” Costa says.
So it was all the more gratifying when the lab returned conclusive evidence that Harrison could not have been the man who committed the 1986 rape.
“I just flipped out,” Costa remembers with a grin.
The next day, Costa and Maxwell again made the four-hour drive to Smith State Prison, this time with video cameras (Costa’s brother, Dan Costa ’01BBA, is co-founder of Emory’s Campus MovieFest, so they had ready access to video equipment). When they met with Harrison, Maxwell told him, “We’ve come to tell you something you already know.” And Harrison, in his typical low-key manner, replied: “Yep.”
That was on Wednesday, August 25, 2004. On Friday, the Innocence Project held a press conference on the steps of the DeKalb County Courthouse announcing their first true success—proving a wrongly convicted man innocent—and District Attorney Jeff Brickman appeared, too, pledging to help free Harrison as quickly as possible. On Monday, Brickman had Harrison moved to the DeKalb County jail; Tuesday morning, August 31, 2004, with a speed that Costa says is literally unprecedented, Judge Cynthia Becker ordered Harrison’s release.
Costa and the other interns were formally recognized by the court, and volunteer attorney David Wolfe, who officially represented Harrison during the proceedings, said in a statement that it was thanks to “the fire in the belly of these interns” that Harrison and others like him could be set free.
“It was such a movie,” Costa says, lighting up at the memory. “Clarence literally got to walk out of the courtroom that day.”
Three days later, Harrison turned forty-five years old.
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