Gordon Cordeiro was 24 when he was sentenced to life in prison for the 1994 murder of Timothy Blaisdell on a remote dirt road around Pukalani, Maui.
Cordeiro was accused of shooting Blaisdell in the head during a drug deal and then plotting to have jailhouse snitches murder the only witness to the crime.
But for more than 20 years, Cordeiro and his family have said he was innocent, the victim of shoddy police science and overzealous prosecution. Cordeiro’s father, Denis, said the family has spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting for his son’s freedom, but to no avail.
“A lot of people think that innocence projects throughout the nation are defense-oriented, and we’re not, we’re justice-oriented.” —Kenneth Lawson, Hawaii Innocence Project
“When you’re doing battle in the courts if you’re not knowledgeable about the legal system, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Denis Cordeiro said. “Overturning anything is a monster of a mountain to climb.”
But now the Cordeiros have the backing of the Hawaii Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic run by University of Hawaii law students, college professors and volunteer attorneys.
The Cordeiros had applied to the Innocence Project for help before. But they were rebuffed by the program’s former director, who told them Gordon’s case just didn’t have the right mix of facts. New directors were appointed this spring, however, and one of their first moves was to tell Denis Cordeiro that they were taking up his son’s case.
“It was a tremendous step forward,” Cordeiro said. “Anytime you hear anything positive it gives you some hope again.”
The Hawaii Innocence Project is looking to revamp its image in the community. It was started in 2005 by retiring UH law professor Virginia Hench and local defense attorneys Susan Arnett, Brook Hart and Bill Harrison. Like other Innocence Projects throughout the U.S., its goal is to free the wrongfully convicted.
It has received little fanfare since its inception, save for the exoneration of Alvin Jardine III, who in 1992 was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the rape of a 25-year-old woman on Maui. Jardine was exonerated by the Innocence Project in 2011 using DNA evidence. Since then there’s been little news to report.
Kenneth Lawson and Ronette Kawakami hope that changes in the coming years. They were named as co-directors last spring. Kawakami is an associate dean at the law school and spent 26 years as a public defender. Lawson is an associate faculty specialist who has a long history of criminal defense work on the mainland.
“We’re hoping to be a lot more active and a lot more visible to the public,” Lawson said. “We’re also hoping to increase the number of exonerations. That’s the only measure of whether you’re effective. Are you getting innocent people out of prison?”
The new-look Innocence Project already seems to be taking on Lawson’s personality. His nickname is the “Law Dog,” and he’s become one of the most popular teachers in the law school, in large part because of his back story.
Lawson was a high-profile criminal defense attorney in Cincinnati with celebrity clients whose career nosedived after he became addicted to painkillers and other illegal drugs.
He represented professional athletes such as football players Elbert “Ickey” Woods and Deion Sanders, as well as the musician Peter Frampton. But he also took on poor clients, sometimes pro bono, especially in matters involving race, civil rights and police misconduct.
“He is very much a fighter and a champion for the underdog.” — Ronette Kawakami, Hawaii Innocence Project, on Lawson
A shoulder injury spelled the end to all that. He was prescribed Oxycontin for the pain. Eventually he became addicted, turning what was supposed to be temporary relief into a $1,000-a-day habit. Lawson missed court dates and stole from clients, one of whom was a doctor he convinced to fuel his addiction with a fake prescription.
The law eventually caught up with him, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. He also lost his license, which in Ohio meant he was permanently suspended from practice.
It’s his story of redemption, though, that has captivated his students and colleagues.
He moved to Hawaii with his wife in 2008. An acquaintance asked him to speak at the law school about professional responsibility. Lawson eventually parlayed that into a position with the Hawaii Innocence Project as an office manager and then as a faculty instructor.
Just last year he was selected by the graduating law students to give the 2014 commencement address.
“He is very much a fighter and a champion for the underdog,” Kawakami said. “The students just react to him so well. They really, really like him. He brings a great amount of credibility because he’s been there. He’s done the big cases. He’s done the work. But he’s also been on the other side of it.”
She said Lawson exemplifies the fallibility of being human, and shows just how important it is not to turn your back on someone.
The message seems to be resonating at the law school. The Hawaii Innocence Project has more students enrolled in its class than at any other time since the program was launched. There’s even a waiting list.
Justine Chmielewski, a third-year law student from Kauai, wants to work in criminal defense after graduation. She just started her second stint with the Hawaii Innocence Project and says there’s a sense of urgency among the students that wasn’t felt in previous years.
Chmielewski attributes much of the renewed energy to Lawson, who has picked two high-profile murder cases for the students to work on this semester. The work has been so consuming, she said, that she finds herself neglecting other classes.
“He believes in us,” she said. “It empowers the students and makes the students feel like they’re making a difference.”
In addition to Cordeiro, the students have been asked to dig into the conviction of Taryn Christian, a Maui man who was found guilty of killing Vilmar Cabaccang in 1995. Christian, like Cordeiro, has claimed innocence for nearly 20 years.
It’s impossible to know how many people who were convicted in Hawaii courts are sitting behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
The Hawaii Innocence Project receives dozens of applications each year from inmates and family members claiming their innocence. A case will only be considered, however, if the inmate has a credible claim for “factual innocence” and if there’s the potential to find enough evidence to back it up. Those claiming self defense or insanity aren’t considered.
“A lot of people think that innocence projects throughout the nation are defense-oriented, and we’re not, we’re justice-oriented,” Lawson said. “Nobody wants to see anyone in prison for something they didn’t do.”
“Overturning anything is a monster of a mountain to climb.” — Denis Cordeiro, father of a man serving a life sentence
One of the goals for the program this year, Lawson said, is to better inform the community about the Hawaii Innocence Project and its mission. The hope is that it will ultimately convince more people to come forward and bring more cases to light.
On Wednesday, Lawson will moderate a panel at UH on the harmful effects of junk science, which includes everything from faulty hair analysis to flaws in eyewitness identification. The event is in honor of Wrongful Conviction Day, which is today.
He will also bring to the islands Ricky Jackson, the longest serving prisoner in U.S. history to be exonerated of his crime, to talk about his 39 years on death row.
Lawson’s passion remains with teaching his students the nuances of criminal law in a real world setting. And while he can’t practice law himself, he says he can try to instill in them the ability to be compassionate. This is especially important when taking on wrongful conviction cases in which a judge and jury have already decided someone’s guilt.
He said he wants the students to realize that the people they read about in court files aren’t fictional characters. They’re real people who have families and are often living in miserable conditions, possibly for something they didn’t do.
It’s unlikely the government is going to admit it made a mistake, Lawson said. That’s why he also teaches the importance of being resilient, like a fighter.
“Law school doesn’t teach you justice,” Lawson said. “We might teach you what the law is. But justice is a matter of the heart.”