Local group focuses on helping those wrongfully convicted regain their freedom

PHOENIX (FOX 10) -- FOX's new show, Proven Innocent, focuses on a team of lawyers looking to make sure innocent people aren't wrongfully incarcerated. In reality, wrongful imprisonment is a very real problem across the country, and there are groups working to free innocent people serving time for crimes they didn't commit in Arizona.

"I was wrongfully incarcerated from 1996 all the way to December 20, 2011," said Khalil Rushdan. His story starts with a drug deal, as he was the middleman of a deal when a buyer killed a seller. Rushdan, intimidated by friends of the killer, didn't testify, and the shooter was acquitted. That's when Rushdan was convicted of murder.

Rushdan was in Dayton, Ohio when he was arrested

"I knew from when they told me I had the warrant out that it was BS," said Rushdan. "I figured it would get cleared up probably within the first six months or something to that nature. I never anticipated it to go 15.5 to 16 years."

Rushdan was locked up in 1996 for a crime he didn't commit. Enter the Arizona Justice Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to freeing the wrongfully incarcerated.

"It's not easy work, and there is an ongoing flow of cases," said Executive Director Lindsay Herf. "In Arizona, about 42,000 people in prison on average each year, and the project receives about 400 new letters."

Herf says cases like Rushdan's are too common in the justice system. Rushdan first contacted the project in 2000.

"The Justice Project was like my family," said Rushdan. "Mainly the people coming in to see me, get released, the first people there that you see upon release."

It took 11 years of work to free Rushdan.

"My daughter was six years old when I was incarcerated," said Rushdan. "You start to think about all the relationships you have with people that are going to be gone."

Rushdan's case was overturned because of vindictive prosecution. After 15 years, he was a free man again.

"I guess I could sum it up as just being in a time machine, traveling 15.5, 16 years in the future, and saying, 'hey, get out, your stop is here. Get out, find your family, and integrate yourself into society'," said Rushdan.

Attorney Lee Stein, who is on the project's Board of Directors, says the work is similar to finding a needle in a haystack, because oftentimes, the cases and the evidence are decades old.

"For me, the toughest part of the case is the realization that someone is sitting in prison for a crime they didn't commit, and I don't know how they keep it together," said Stein. "I mean, I don't think I could."

There have been more than 2,000 exonerations nationwide since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. 23 of those happened in Arizona, largely thanks to the work of organizations like the Justice Project, and with help from law students, including some at Arizona State University.

Advances in science have also helped the cause.

"DNA testing wasn't used in the criminal justice system. It didn't exist in the late 80's, mid 90's," said Herf. "If we have a sex assault case from 1985 and they had blood group testing, today we'd seek to find that evidence, test it, and see if it supports a claim of evidence."

There are still plenty of shortcomings in an already stretched thin justice system, making it nearly impossible to tell how many other cases like this are out there.

"Finality is a reality of what the criminal justice system is," said Tim Agan, staff attorney at the Arizona Justice Project. "The system is overtaxed and has to move quickly, and once it moves through the process, there's not really resources for everybody to have their cases re-examined."

Rushdan now uses his freedom to fight for other innocent people currently locked up, hoping stories like his can lead to reform.

"The time away, it is a robbery," said Rushdan. "It's not only a robbery, it's a slap in the face when you see this occurring over and over again, and you don't fix it."

It should be noted that Arizona is one of 17 states in the U.S. that does not require compensation for wrongfully incarcerated people.

Arizona Justice Project