Christina Cribbs Works to Right Wrongful Convictions
Christina Cribbs (J.D. ’10) knows the scales of justice rise … and fall. In 2009, while interning at the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), Cribbs exited the Fulton County Jail beside Michael Marshall, a man she helped free from a wrongful conviction.
More recently, Cribbs lamented a lab report that found no DNA evidence on tested items in another case. Without it, a client’s conviction cannot be challenged. “He has two life sentences,” she said, “so he will never get out of prison. It is absolutely heartbreaking, because I firmly believe in his innocence.”
Cribbs began trying to right wrongful convictions as an apprentice and then as a staff attorney at GIP, a nonprofit corporation devoted to exonerating people imprisoned in Georgia and Alabama for crimes they did not commit.
She made her mark.
“Christina’s simply an amazing attorney,” said Aimee Maxwell (M.Ed. ’83, J.D. ’87), GIP’s founding executive director.
As a GIP staff attorney, Cribbs led work on a $424,000 National Institute of Justice grant, the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program. The 2014 – 15 project brought prosecutors and GIP together to examine nearly 3,000 cases where there was a match between DNA on crime scene evidence and an offender in the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database. Of those cases, Cribbs investigated the approximately 75 in which the DNA on the crime scene evidence did not match the convicted defendant. Her work exonerated a Brunswick man for a wrongful burglary conviction.
Cribbs, a Duluth resident, remains a volunteer GIP staff attorney and works full time with the Georgia Public Defender Council on criminal appeals for indigent defendants.
“I’ve always been interested in criminal justice,” Cribbs said. “I attended law school to become a prosecutor.”
Her 2008 – 09 summer internships and working school year at GIP changed her. “Seeing the devotion that GIP had to people who had no one else to care about them was completely inspiring,” she said.
She now passionately advocates for public defenders.
“You hear a lot of negative talk about people who can’t afford a private attorney and have to use a public defender,” she said. “I never let those comments go by without giving my opinion: 99 percent of public defenders are there because they care that everyone has access to a lawyer and a fair chance.”
But the sheer volume of caseloads public defenders carry increases the chance of wrongful convictions, according to Cribbs. The system is overburdened, and that makes her job even more difficult.
“A private criminal attorney may handle 30 serious felony cases a year,” she said. “A public defender is expected to handle two to three times that many. It’s harder to build an appropriate case to defend clients.”
In 2013, statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed the average public defender in Atlanta had an estimated time of just 59 minutes per assigned case.
“Unrealistic time allotments such as these,” Cribbs said, “can create an enormous amount of pressure on attorneys to dispose of cases as quickly as possible.”
A lack of “balance in resources” in the legal system also puts justice at risk, according to Cribbs.
“Let’s say a case involves a complex medical issue. A private lawyer spends $5,000 and consults medical experts. But it’s hard for a public defender to get money approved for that.”
In 2014, National Public Radio reported that “The costs of the criminal justice system … are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders.”
Cribbs explains: “Those who cannot afford to pay are often treated unfairly in comparison to those who have the financial means to pay, even when they have been accused of the same crime.”
But even with its flaws, Cribbs believes fully in our legal system. She urges Georgia State Law students to believe too.
“Wrongful conviction is my cause,” she said. “Find your cause, and get behind something you feel you can make a difference with.”