There is a new chief executive at the Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project. The not-for-profit corporation works to free men and women behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
The project was started a decade ago through the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law to investigate and do the legal work necessary to free the wrongly convicted. Arthur Chaykin leads a staff of six and multiple volunteers and law school students. He met at his office with KCUR’s Dan Verbeck for this conversation:
DV: Arthur Chaykin was a young teenager when he had his first brush with the attorney side of the Law. Apparently, in some form, it’s been with him ever since. Chaykin and a small band of colleagues work out of donated space in a downtown Kansas City high rise. Their mission is to free the wrongly imprisoned in a six-state region. Chaykin has worked in corporation law, mediation, patents and trademarks and intellectual property, has taught in law schools and has practiced on the criminal side. That’s the side he comes home to now. He concedes he is still learning how everything works, having had so few days on the job. Thanks for your time, Mr. Chaykin.
AC: Thank you.
DV: Was there something early on in your years that pointed you to looking for what some call the most impossible kind of justice, that for people who’ve been through the court system, up the appeals ladder and lost?
AC: Yes, I think in my early years I started hanging around courtrooms in New York when I was only about 14 or 15. I was working for a lawyer who had an office down on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Actually I was pressed into service rather early because a solo practitioner would have to run from court to court. When he couldn’t make it from one court to the other he would send me over. So I got my first continuance when I was only 16. That had to be a record in King’s County, New York. But throughout that experience I started to see that there were a lot of problems with the administration of justice. So, this job, in a lot of ways is a natural in terms of something that’s been interesting me my whole life. This is about how to make the system of justice more accurate, how to correct mistakes and how to assure justice for everybody involved.
DV: You and I grew up in an era where there was certainly a great deal of violence, and depending on what your race was, dealing with who wound up in prison. You probably experienced some observations from afar or even close up. Did that drive you in some way?
AC: In some ways. And in some ways it’s still the case that the overwhelming majority of people who go through at least the criminal justice process are some of the least fortunate among us, and therefore the least equipped to defend themselves.
DV: Can you paint kind of a portrait of who winds up wrongly convicted, and how?
AC: You know, Dan, that’s one thing that has me very excited about this job. Even back when I was a kid working in cases a long time ago, I used to think that criminals were sort of another group of people. You know, there's us and then there’s all those criminals. The fact of the matter is, criminals are a lot like you and me. It’s just that they’ve been accused of committing a crime. This came home to me very clearly one time when the lawyer I was working with sent me over to drive a defendant to court. And I was driving him over the Brooklyn Bridge, in fact. I said, 'So, what are you on trial for?' And he said, 'Murder.' Now this guy was as plain-looking as anybody else, as calm and collected as anybody else, but he had been involved in some situation where he was accused of murder. So, the people who are sitting in prison are like you and me. And the ones who are sitting in prison and are actually innocent are exactly like you and me. And that’s what drives me every morning. This organization is focused on helping to get those people who are like you and me out of prison.
Now, in terms of how they wind up there, The Innocence Project has discovered certain elements that often repeat in these cases of wrongful conviction: bad witnesses, eyewitness identifications, confessions that, although they may not be coerced, are highly questionable, science that is just not good science and yet results in a crime being pinned on somebody. (There is) a very high degree of desire on the part of a community to find someone who committed a crime. All these things can lead to a rush to judgment and a wrongful conviction.
DV: For your time, thank you so much.
AC: Thank you.
DV: Arthur Chaykin is the new Director of the Midwest Innocence Project based here in Kansas City.