Vanessa Potkin, The Innocence Project’s director of post-conviction litigation, addresses the court during Wednesday’s exoneration hearing for Christopher Tapp, center. Public defender John Thomas is seated to Tapp’s left.

Christopher Tapp's story is both unique and frighteningly common.

Tapp, who served more than 20 years in prison for the 1996 rape and murder of Angie Dodge, was exonerated Wednesday, two months after another man confessed to the crime and said he acted alone.

That Tapp is free, seven years before he would have been scheduled for his first parole hearing, is the culmination of the work of his public defender John Thomas and countless other volunteers. It's also a testament to the well-documented efforts of Carol Dodge, Angie's mother, who has long sought the truth about what happened to her daughter. In her search for the truth Carol Dodge came to believe what we now know — that Tapp had nothing to do with Angie's death.

Certainly, Carol Dodge's role in advocating for the freedom of the man she once believed had stolen her daughter's life is unique. But there are many other men — primarily men — like Tapp serving long prison sentences for crimes they didn't commit.

Aside from the elation that followed Tapp's exoneration Wednesday, the overwhelming message from those involved in helping him clear his name was that there are lessons to be learned.

Vanessa Potkin, The Innocence Project's director of post-conviction litigation, joined Tapp and Thomas at Wednesday's hearing. In a press conference afterward, she highlighted how common cases such as Tapp's are.

"Since 1989, two thousand, four hundred and now 67 people have been proven innocent when you take into account all types of evidence," she said.

Of those, 367 were cases where those who'd been convicted were later proven innocent through the use of DNA evidence. Like Tapp, 28 percent (103 people) had falsely confessed.

Potkin and Steve Drizin, a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, both pointed to critically flawed police interrogation tactics as driving miscarriages of justice such as those that occurred in the Angie Dodge murder investigation.

Drizin became involved in Tapp's case in 2013 at Carol Dodge's urging. While talking to those gathered at the steps of the Bonneville County Courthouse on Wednesday, he said it was the first time in his career that a crime victim had ever contacted him to look at a case.

When he did look at the tapes of Tapp's interrogation, "I saw the least corroborated and most contaminated confession I'd ever seen."

"It was a virtual recipe for how to take a false confession," he continued.

Drizin praised Carol Dodge, "a layperson and a crime victim," for recognizing the flaws in the Idaho Falls Police Department's interrogation.

"How could she see that and the police officers not see all of these problems," Drizin said.

Potkin and Drizin used Wednesday's press conference to continue to call for reform in police interrogation methods.

"It's surprising to people that police can lie to you," Potkin said. "If you're someone that grows up trusting police and believe the police are there to help you, and you go into an interrogation room and police say to you 'you just need to work with us' — 'it will be better for you if you tell us what we need to know from you' — or you tell them what they want to hear.

"These are the tactics that lead people to falsely confess."

Potkin and The Innocence Project are pushing for interrogations to be videotaped from start to finish, something about half the states now require, "but we also need to make sure that these techniques that are psychologically coercive, that police are using day in and day out to get confessions, are not used any more."

Drizin said law enforcement must change its approach when the evidence doesn't match the confession.

"What I want to see happen in cases like this is, before trial, when you have a confession and you have DNA evidence that excludes the person who confesses, the police need to stop and not charge that person and keep investigating," he said. "Because, had they done that, they might have found the person who actually committed this crime."

Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian, founder of the Idaho Innocence Project, told the crowd at Wednesday's press conference that the effort first to free and then later exonerate Tapp took "hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer work."

Hampikian, like many involved in Wednesday's hearing including Tapp himself, called for the justice system to learn from the experience.

"Somebody here said, 'We don't ever want this to happen again,'" Hampikian said. "But it's already happened again. This case is from 1996. Do you think there weren't others that weren't prosecuted in the same way?"

In concluding her remarks Potkin said reforms are needed, "because we know there are many more Chris Tapps out there."

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