Two Decades of Freedom

By Phillip Bramwell

Arizona Justice Project helps those wrongly convicted

Khalil Rushdan looked at photos every day.

“It was like traveling 15 years in a time capsule,” he says.

Rushdan watched his family and friends age from an Arizona prison cell after prosecutors convicted him of first-degree felony murder in 1996.

Rushdan and two other men were involved in a Tucson drug deal. After he left, a conflict ensued between his two partners that left one of them dead.

Rushdan was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

“I was charged because the prosecutor felt I was responsible for the alleged shooter getting acquitted,” Rushdan says.

Rushdan took a polygraph test, submitted fingerprints and turned in the alleged murder weapon. Those steps were not enough for prosecutors.

“They wanted me to wear a wire,” he says. “I refused because it would put my life in direct danger.”

Police arrested Rushdan on May 22, 1996. His first stop was Florence State Prison.

Rushdan spent most of his time in the facility’s law library. He exercised daily to decrease the possibility he would fall ill.

“You get sick in prison, and you feel like that is going to be your last day on Earth,” Rushdan says.

His situation began to improve in 2000 when he contacted Phoenix-based Arizona Justice Project, which is financed through donations from individuals and corporations.

The staff helped secure Rushdan’s exoneration on December 20, 2011. Rushdan considers his legal team family.

“The project’s legal team mentored me into becoming a better person,” Rushdan says. “I was never a bad kid; I just made immature decisions.”

After his release, Rushdan struggled to assimilate. Despite showing the landlord his exoneration documents, the landlord denied Rushdan housing.

“If you go to prison, it is a life sentence regardless. I still get tried by the court of public opinion,” Rushdan says.

Rushdan’s mother died after a bout with cancer eight months after his release. Rushdan now works as a case manager for SAGE Counseling, which provides treatment and resources to inmates released early from prison. He also mentors family members of released prisoners on how to support their transition back into society. Rushdan resides in Phoenix.

Lending a hand

Keith Swisher, a professor at The University of Arizona’s School of Law, volunteers as a legal ethics consultant for the project.

Swisher is unconvinced some prosecutors and law enforcement officials understand the impact their actions have on the lives of exonerates.

“They might give some lip service, but I am not sure that they get it,” Swisher says.

Swisher says the most common ethical dilemmas the project experiences happen when multiple defendants from the same case request their assistance.

Victims’ families can contact the project when they want testimony reconsidered or if the families are asking for defendants to receive a lighter sentence. Arizona law prohibits defense lawyers from making the first contact with the families of victims.

“When the project cannot take a case, defendants can reach out to another innocence project organization, find a paid lawyer or, defendants must represent themselves,” Swisher says.

Swisher wants the public to know the project has a heavy caseload.

He does not think prosecutors wrongfully convict on purpose. He wants safeguard procedures in place to decrease the likelihood of that.

“The project wants Arizona to exercise compassion,” Swisher says.

The project also represents rightfully convicted prisoners seeking early release.

Swisher says early release cases are more challenging to put together.

“(For example), the person has been in jail for 35 years for three drug offenses,” Swisher says. “They have earned their general education degree. They do not want anything to do with drugs anymore. Enough is enough.”

Desperate to help

Larry Hammond walked into his office every day and saw a stack of papers on his desk during the 1980s. The ink on the paper reeked of possible injustice. The words written from pens gripped by some of Arizona’s wrongfully incarcerated prisoners locked behind steel bars.

Hammond felt the desperation in their words as their time and life quality slipped away. He founded Arizona Justice Project, which turns 20 this year. He and other contributors reflect on the work done and what lies ahead.

“There is a lot of resistance from judges and prosecutors to reopen cases,” Hammond says.

Convicts are allowed one post-decision appeal with the help of a state-appointed public defender before defendants must find their own resources.

The project receives thousands of applications annually. A judge reviews each case and decides if a case can proceed. Hammond says judges deny cases often. If the defendant loses their appeal in state court, they can file a motion in federal court.

Project staff attorney Kindra Fleming worked at the Innocence Project while earning her degree from Western Michigan University’s Cooley School of Law.

“Our mission is to help those who have been forgotten or left behind in the justice system,” Fleming says.

Fleming and her colleagues feel they have a moral obligation to advocate for those they feel are undeserving of prison time. She wants the public to know errors occur in the judicial system as they do in any other capacity. The consequences of court mistakes are detrimental.

“In law, error rates are humans,” Fleming says.

The project receives more appeal applications than they can complete. However, they strive to help as many as they can.

“We never want to turn a blind eye to someone sitting in prison who should not be there,” Fleming says.