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'An illusion of safety' | Why every county should have a Conviction Integrity Unit.

Fulton County started a unit aimed to make sure the right people are held accountable. Their work exonerated two men with efforts to help more soon.

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Nearly 20 years ago, a woman died in an exchange of gunfire. It happened on the corner of McDaniel and Delevan Streets in Atlanta's Pittsburgh neighborhood. Two men went to prison for murder.

“When the police came, they saying my gun is the one that did it. Everything dropped,” Michael Woolfolk recalled.

“They was saying somebody got killed. I didn’t see nobody get shot. I just seen her shooting at me,” Mario Stinchcomb added. 

What is now a boarded building, once served as a rooming house in 2002. That's when Stinchcomb and Woolfolk came to visit their friends.

A woman came by the house hoping to buy drugs. When they said no, she got mad, according to Stinchcomb and Woolfolk.

“She didn’t want to leave, so I pushed her out the door," Stinchcomb recalled. "As she went out the door, she said, I’m going to go get my gun for you. You dun messed up.'"

She allegedly got her gun from the passenger side of the car and fired at the window.

“When I looked to see where he [Stinchcomb] was, she shot at me,” Woolfolk said. “I got away from the window backing up like what’s going on?”

New evidence reveals a different story

At trial, Fulton County prosecutors told jurors the two men fired back as she drove away. Meanwhile, a witness, the driver of that car, told a different story. 

“Turns out, she was actually leaning out of the window, still shooting at them when they returned fire,” said Aimee Maxwell, the head of Fulton County's Conviction Integrity Unit.

Woolfolk was the only one to even fire at the woman. After one bullet, his gun jammed. Stinchcomb did fire his gun, too, but he said he shot up in the air in frustration.

Neither man knew she was injured. They just knew the car was gone, and they were no longer under attack.

“They was saying somebody got killed. I didn’t see nobody get shot. I just seen her shooting at me,” Stinchcomb said while talking about his arrest.

Critical details determine the difference between murder and self-defense.

No one found the driver, Jamario Ford, in time for trial, Maxwell said. In fact, at the time, prosecutors thought Ford was dead.

Woolfolk and Stinchcomb sat behind bars for 18 years waiting for parole.

“I went up for parole twice and was denied," Woolfolk said. "Due to the nature of my crime."

While the men were in prison, police found Ford. 

He pleaded guilty to dumping the body of the woman involved in that shooting rather than calling the police. Until Maxwell came along, more than a decade later, no one in the D.A.’s office asked Ford what happened that night.

Holding the right people accountable

If it weren’t for the Conviction Integrity Unit, both men said they don't think they’d be sitting in a conference room sharing their story.

In 2019, Fulton County started the CIU to make sure the right people were being held accountable.

“When we put somebody in prison that is a serious, serious event and we want to make sure that we've done it right,” said Maxwell.

In the past three years, Maxwell’s team closed 323 cases. Murder, armed robbery and rape top the list of crimes committed by defendants seeking a fresh set of eyes on the evidence used to convict them.

Woolfolk and Stinchcomb are the only two with convictions overturned. Another case in the county is marked exonerated, but it relates to a clerical error that cited someone’s conviction as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

More than 200 cases are currently under review. 

Maxwell believes there will be more exonerations in the coming months. One of those cases might involve current District Attorney Fani Willis.

"She's receptive,” said Maxwell, who recounted the uncomfortable conversation she had when she told Willis what the unit discovered. “It’s a situation where she wasn’t given all the information. The police investigation happened way too fast.”

We often think of DNA as the primary evidence that helps overturn convictions, but Maxwell said that hasn’t been a big factor in their cases.

Maxwell said the unit also looks at whether sentences should be modified. She reviewed hundreds of cases to make sure people who committed the same crime under the same conditions are held to the same sentencing standard.

Thirty-one people had their sentences reduced -- many of them drug cases. There are people who got life in prison for possessing a small amount of drugs, or those given long sentences for crimes that would no longer receive prison time.

We have accountability courts now that try to treat people with drug addictions rather than just putting them in prison. It's a big use of resources. Prison should be for really violent people,” Maxwell said.

In the metro, Gwinnett County started a Conviction Integrity Unit but would not respond to our request for information. Maxwell said people in every county should demand a unit of their own to verify the system got it right.

“The fact that people are exonerated on a regular basis now around the country should make citizens worry,” Maxwell said.  “If you get it wrong, there's an innocent person in prison, but also the guilty person is still out there. So you're not safe. You have an illusion of safety, but you're not safe.”

Time lost behind bars

Stinchcomb and Woolfolk were in their early 20s at the time of the shooting.

“I was trying to be a mechanic, I was trying to be a rapper,” said Stinchcomb, who also had dreams of playing professional sports.

“I had started a business. It was small, but I was proud of it,” said Woolfolk, reflecting on how hard it’s been to restart his life now that he’s been released. “I felt like I lost that momentum.”

It’s time they can’t get back. 

Both struggled to find solid, high paying jobs to re-establish their lives. Both set up online fundraisers to raise awareness about their story to help get back on their feet.

“They took us away from our families and basically put us back at the beginner’s block. So, we’ve got to figure things out; go through the learning process again,” Woolfolk said.

While in prison, their loved ones died. Stinchcomb’s children grew.

“I lost a lot, I lost… I don’t feel good about this situation and I really don’t want to see anybody else go through what we went through,” Stinchcomb said. 

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