May 2010 Georgia State Law graduate Christina Rupp.
October 27, 2010
ATLANTA—Through her work with the Georgia Innocence Project, Georgia State University College of Law student Christina Rupp used instincts and DNA to help spring a man from jail for a crime he did not commit.
"It was very exciting and very emotional," said Rupp, who graduated in May 2010. "He called me his angel. It was sweet, I almost broke down."
Homeless at the time, Michael Marshall was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault for allegedly stealing an orange and white truck and pointing a gun at its owner in Hapeville, Ga., in 2007.
Officers responding to the crime apparently found the truck and chased the suspect, who later jumped out and took off running. Police chased the suspect, but he ran into the woods. They never saw him again. They later found only a cell phone and T-shirt in the same area. The police drew up a sketch of the suspect.
For 10 days, the crime went unsolved. But police found Marshall sleeping in the hallway of an apartment complex, Rupp said. The police believed Marshall to be the person in the sketch.
"He was homeless for four years," Rupp said. "He lost his job and a place to live at the same time. He couldn't recover. He has 10 sisters and brothers but he was too proud to ask his family for help."
Marshall turned to the Georgia Innocence Project for help. Rupp was about three weeks into an internship there when she received Marshall's letter in June, 2008.
In his letter, Marshall said, "I pleaded guilty out of being scared ... it's not my charge, so I ask you out of truth to help me," according to the Georgia Innocence Project Website.
Rupp's instincts compelled her to dig deeper. The evidence did not stack up against Marshall, Rupp said. Marshall pleaded guilty for a lesser sentence - theft by taking - because he was scared at the prospect of 25 years in jail, she said. "I thought, 'wow, something was not right about this case.'"
Rupp interned with the Georgia Innocence Project two summers in a row and a semester in between, and volunteered to see Marshall's case through. In search of pockets of information that might be helpful, she tracked down public records. She found holes in the case.
After the truck was stolen, the main witness and owner of the orange and white truck did not wish to give police information upon which to build a sketch. Instead, police drew it from a secondary witness, who only saw the robber from behind as the truck pulled away.
Then, the police conducted a "show-up," not a "line-up" with Marshall, meaning the secondary witness identified him on the spot at the apartment complex, not in a line-up of possible suspects. The witness identified Marshall as the person who stole the truck, though he only saw the back of the robber's head, according to Rupp.
Meanwhile, the police never tested the cell phone or T-shirt for DNA until Rupp came along. Rupp said the DNA and items actually matched the profile of someone else.
"There was nothing that connected Marshall to the crime," Rupp said. "The cell phone and T-shirt had the same DNA profile but they were not a match when compared with Marshall's DNA."
That's when things really began moving on the case, even though it had to wind its way through the notoriously slow legal system. By this time, Rupp's internship had long ended, but she stayed on. "I thought it was more important that we get an innocent man out of jail," she said.
Aimee Maxwell, executive director with the Georgia Innocence Project, said the Marshall case is a first for the organization.
"Christina championed this case all the way through," Maxwell said. "We typically take on rape cases. But Christina looked at this case and it really bothered her that no one tested the DNA."
In 2009, Rupp received the Leeza Cherniak Memorial Scholarship to the Georgia Innocence Project to continue working on her active cases, including Marshall's.
Marshall turned out to be the Georgia Innocence Project's fastest moving exoneration ever. After spending two years behind bars, he was set free last December.
"He was so thankful," Rupp said. "It was a really good feeling to know how it was going to change his life."
Marshall's exoneration was the first in two years and the fifth overall for the Georgia Innocence Project since the nonprofit was founded in 2002. Though the project has received approximately 4,200 requests for assistance, it has accepted 23 clients.
Though Marshall was not available for an interview, he told the Georgia Innocence Project upon release: "I'm taking it one day at a time, and it feels good just to walk around. My mind is on staying patient and letting things come as they will."
Rupp says Marshall's first meal after getting out of jail was chicken from his favorite restaurant. Then, he spent the holidays with his mother and family in Alabama.
The Georgia Innocence Project is supporting Marshall through its "Life After Exoneration" program, which helps with food, shelter, clothing, education and job training.
Rupp received her undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Georgia State. As the daughter of a former Fayetteville, Ga., police officer who is also retired military, she originally thought about becoming a prosecutor heading into law school. But her encounter with Marshall became a powerful experience. She now plans to focus her work on indigent defense.
"I've seen the other side," Rupp said. "I have a different outlook now."