When Shawn Armbrust began investigating wrongful convictions in Maryland, she kept hearing the same questions whenever she asked for a case file.
Who are you? Where is Michele?
Michele, of course, was the attorney Michele Nethercott, the singular force behind the Innocence Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She worked tirelessly on a shoestring budget with a staff that peaked around three to identify and set free innocent men behind bars.
The 61-year-old retires at the end of June after directing the exoneration program since its inception almost two decades ago. Along the way, she mastered DNA evidence and exonerated 12 men. With a reputation as a pit bull in the courtroom, her name became synonymous with the effort in Baltimore to correct costly mistakes of the justice system.
“I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who has been as successful as she has doing this work with so few resources,” said Armbrust, who directs the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at The George Washington University in Washington. “There are a lot of people who would have said, ‘This is too hard. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Indeed, recent years unearthed a slew of wrongful convictions against Black men in Maryland. Some 30% of the state’s population is Black, but 70% of its prisoners are Black — the highest rate of Black inmates in America, according to the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute in Washington.
Day after day, letters pour into Nethercott’s office from prison; she’s seen a dozen in one day. The men are urgent and pleading, their words filling the margins. More requests come by voicemail from desperate wives, mothers and sisters. Nethercott received 600 requests for help last year, she said.
“The intake is a real challenge,” she said. “You’re trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. As you can imagine, a fair amount of the requests are not meritorious. It’s the core of the whole thing. We’re trying to identify people who have valid claims of factual innocence.”
Born in Canada, Nethercott attended Northeastern University’s School of Law in Boston and started work in the late 1980s with the public defender’s office in Baltimore County. Circumstance led her to become the first director of Maryland’s innocence program (separate exoneration programs operate in other states).
That circumstance was the case of Bernard Webster.
The East Baltimore man had been convicted of raping a teacher in her Towson apartment. He spent nearly two decades in prison before his claims of innocence landed on Nethercott’s desk. She discovered three surviving slides of evidence long forgotten at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.
The slides were nearly 20 years old, collected before widespread use of DNA evidence. When Nethercott tested the DNA, she found it matched someone else. The discovery caused a sensation. News crews clamored around Webster when he walked free.
Faced with the power of this new evidence, then-Public Defender Stephen Harris formed the Innocence Project and charged Nethercott with uncovering more wrongful convictions. In 2005, she won freedom for Ronald Addison, who was serving 30 years in prison for murder. Nethercott unearthed previously undisclosed statements from three witnesses who contradicted the prosecution’s account of the crime.
Three years later, armed again with DNA evidence, she cleared James Owens, who had spent 20 years in prison for murder.
In May 2010, she won freedom for Tyrone Jones. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison. His case hinged on evidence that his hands tested positive for gunshot residue — microscopic particles of lead, barium and other metals discharged during gunfire. Tests of Jones’ hands, however, detected just one viable particle.
Gunshot residue was increasingly recognized as a problem. The tiny particles are notorious hitchhikers, found in the back seat of police cars and evidence rooms. Tests in 2003 of a “clean room” in the city police lab found traces of gunshot residue on the handcuffs, gun belt and holster of the officer assigned there.
“You just can’t make this leap that one microscopic particle that you detect on somebody’s hand got there from firing a weapon,” Nethercott said.
She won freedom for Jones and went on to give talks about the problems with gunshot residue evidence. In 2006, the FBI announced it was no longer analyzing gunshot residue in its investigations. Officials at the time explained their change simply as a shift in priorities. Nethercott calls that baloney; the evidence had been discredited.
“To be effective at this work, you have to have a wide-ranging understanding of scientific evidence, everything from shaken baby syndrome to cognitive psychology to understanding how things go wrong with eyewitness identifications,” she said.
There came disappointments, plenty of them. The courts allow old cases to be reexamined in light of newly discovered evidence, not simply to take a fresh look at old evidence. She said she came to recognize the legal system possessed a “fanatical dedication” to preserving a conviction. Further, in many old cases the evidence is lost, destroyed or degraded. So often, Nethercott found no way to prove a man’s innocence.
“It’s one of the most difficult and often painful parts of this work,” she said. “Cases you work on for years and years, you begin to develop a pretty strong conviction that the person didn’t commit the crime and there’s nothing you can do.”
In 2008, the innocence project moved to the University of Baltimore School of Law. Now, the law school and public defender’s office jointly run the program. Nethercott teaches, too, and her students help investigate cases. They were shocked at the sloppy investigations and prosecutors’ missteps. The students energized her. “A way to battle my cynicism,” Nethercott said.
She became an inspiration to her students, too, said Ronald Weich, dean of the law school.
“These exonerations can take years of hard work; she never gives up. If she senses injustice, she stays with the fight until justice is done,” he said.
In 2012, she won exoneration for Demetrius Smith, who was serving a life sentence for murder; evidence surfaced proving another man the killer. She cleared the name of Larry Hugee, who was serving 25 years for armed robbery. The years brought more victories: John Mooney, Malcolm Bryant, Clarence Shipley, Eric Simmons, Alfred Chestnut.
Each exoneration took her an average of six years, Nethercott said. Many brought a hard fight just to get before a judge.
At times, she had to litigate just to review the old evidence. She pulled 10-hour days a month straight during trial. She returned to old crime scenes on her nights and weekends to double-check eyewitness accounts, sometimes bringing her spouse along for safety. They raised four kids amid it all, but the work wore on Nethercott.
“There’s the time of doing the work and the emotions piece of it,” said Rhonda Lipkin, her spouse. “It really matters. Someone’s life is literally in your control in terms of someone getting out of jail or not. There’s a feeling of, ‘If I don’t do that one more thing, it might have been the difference.’”
Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said Nethercott’s record shows the flaws of Maryland’s justice system and the importance of post-conviction review.
Of late, Nethercott has squared off against a hard-charging law firm out of Chicago. Baltimore officials hired the out-of-town attorneys to defend against wrongful conviction lawsuits filed by exonerated men. The Chicago attorneys found evidence Tony DeWitt won his freedom with a forged document. That wasn’t Nethercott’s case, but the attorneys are scrutinizing the other exonerations.
A joint committee of staff from the University of Baltimore and Public Defender’s Office hired the Greenbelt attorney Erica Suter to succeed Nethercott.
“Michele is known for being sort of relentless or tenacious when it comes to her clients. That’s her reputation, and that’s the key to success in wrongful conviction work,” Suter said.
Nethercott plans to retire at the end of June. She may work occasionally as a consultant on cases, but there will be more time for walks in the woods, swims and goofing with her grandkids.
She’s maintained a wry humor through all the heartbreaking cases. When asked about her decades in the trenches of exoneration work, Nethercott offers in summation a moment of absurdity. You have to laugh in such work, or else you’ll cry.
She recalls returning to the crime scene with the exonerated Demetrius Smith to meet news reporters, when a woman came up to her.
The woman had implicated Smith in the crime years ago, saying then that she knew him well as a neighborhood troublemaker.
Now, she chatted away with Nethercott. When Smith walked by, Nethercott said the woman asked her, “Who’s that?”