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They're incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit. Here's how the Kentucky Innocence Project is addressing the issue

The Kentucky Innocence Project said they get between 30 and 60 applications a month.

KENTUCKY, USA — The Kentucky Innocence Project is working to prevent wrongful convictions through education, with their annual Crime Scene Investigation exercise, also known as "CSI Day." 

“Today you are going to determine all of the important questions," said Chrissy Madjar, an attorney with the nonprofit the Kentucky Innocence Project.

Madjar is talking about a mock crime scene in Frankfort for law students around the country, with evidence, witnesses, and a complex storyline. 

“And they're going to try to piece together what happened to determine the who, what, where, when, why of this murder," said Madjar.

Madjar directed the scene. 

She works with the Kentucky Innocence Project, a statewide resource to combat wrongful convictions. 

“Currently, the Kentucky Innocence Project gets between 30 and 60 applications a month," she said.

With limited resources, only a fraction of cases gets their help. And the need for help around the country is magnified. Experts estimate 2 percent to 6 percent of people who have been convicted are wrongly convicted. 

That’s up to around 1.600 people in Kentucky, and around 87,000 people nationwide who may be innocent behind bars, according to the nonprofits the Kentucky Innocence Project and the Prison Policy Initiative.

Part 1: Innocent behind bars | She went to prison at 16, now she's a pardoned, wrongfully convicted woman and Kentucky doesn't compensate

Managing these cases as the incarcerated population keeps growing is a challenge for the agency.

“That’s a hurdle that we are trying to deal with now," said Madjar.

And with CSI Day, she’s also dealing with how to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.

“We have to be very critical at each step, starting from the crime scene kind of like what we’re doing today. And we need to understand what our personal biases are," said Madjar. “One of the biases is that if an individual is arrested, they must be guilty. Another bias is that if an individual does not testify at their own trial, they must be hiding something," she said, adding that racism is very prevalent in wrongful convictions.

National data shows innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than white people. It also takes significantly longer to exonerate them, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

“It’s horrible," said Bianca Rudnick, a law student.

It’s the reason Bianca Rudnick, a single mother, sacrificed sleep for law school. 

“And trying to do law school during COVID with a kid at home is wild," said Rudnick. 

And it's why John Heyman, motivated by a childhood friend who was wrongly convicted, applied to law school last year.

“To help those that need someone in their corner," said Heyman. 

Since 1992, the National Registry of Exonerations said 23 people in Kentucky have been exonerated due to wrongful convictions. Their total time behind bars: 214 years. {Note: "Time lost" represents time in custody after conviction}

“I believe that there’s a lot of injustice in the world," said Madjar. 

There are likely so many others, she said, who need help and will never get it.

“Because of police misconduct or prosecutorial misconduct, or an attorney that did not bother to look at certain pieces of evidence or interview witnesses… I think we can all do better," said Madjar. 

She calls her exercise a hopeful step toward greater justice. 

The goal of the entire exercise: keeping an open mind and not giving into confirmation bias. That happens when we put greater weight on new evidence that coincides with our existing beliefs. 

Contact reporter Paula Vasan at pvasan@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@PaulaVasan) and Facebook.

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