By A.M. Brown
Inside Tucson Business – October 17, 2005
Is it possible there are innocent people sitting in Arizona’s prisons? On death row? According to nationally-known private investigator Paul Ciolino it’s practically a certainty.
“As a general rule of thumb, 10 percent of people who are charged criminally are innocent,” Ciolino said. This estimate is based on his decades of experience in law enforcement, and as a private investigator, often working to clear the wrongfully accused.
Ciolino spoke last week at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, telling law students, professors and community members about his work. He takes on both civil and criminal cases, and is often called upon to help prove the innocence of people on death row, with little time to live.
“I worked a case in Virginia where we knew the guy was innocent,” said Ciolino. “We had the DNA to prove it and they basically destroyed it in the middle of the night so we couldn’t test it, and the judge let them do it. In Virginia they have a rule if you don’t have newly discovered evidence within 30 days of conviction you can’t bring it in, ever. We’re five years post that and the judge is like ‘I don’t care what you’ve got.’”
Ciolino’s client was executed a week later.
This investigator, who works with several Innocence Projects in the United States, believes it is generally misconduct by prosecutors and law enforcement agents that leads to the wrongly accused being convicted.
“Police and prosecution misconduct, laboratory fraud, those are the big issues,” Ciolino said. “Almost every wrongful conviction case we’ve ever been involved in, it was pretty clear that the guy in jail didn’t do it.”
“The vast majority of my job is to see if the police are lying. I get the police report, I go see a witness I see what they know.”
Ciolino admits that most in law enforcement are honest. But he contends that political considerations influence cases.
“A lot of times they’re not allowed to do the right thing. They get direction from above ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’” Ciolino said. “There are not a lot of Lone Rangers in police departments who get to do what they want to do and do the right thing.”
After years of helping the wrongfully accused, Ciolino has advice for those who are innocent and get in trouble with the law:
“My recommendation is don’t talk to the government. If you’re going to talk to them there’s always a time and a place, later in a controlled environment where there’s no mistake what you’re saying, what your intentions are, like when you have a lawyer and a court reporter there.”
Ciolino plans to continue taking on tough cases, including those where his clients may be weeks, days, or even hours away from being put to death, even though it is very difficult.
“These cases are draining emotionally. You have to find a balance. You can’t fall in love with these clients because they might be executed.”
“What keeps me going is a sense of fair play. I hate to see people, especially people with no means, get screwed.”