(Photo of Janis C. Puracal by Michael Schmitt/ABA Journal)
“Two years of pure hell.”
This is how Forensic Justice Project executive director and attorney Janis C. Puracal describes the fight to free her brother, Jason Puracal, after he almost died in Nicaragua’s notorious La Modelo prison.
In 2011, Jason was sentenced to 22 years on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. But Puracal says there was no evidence to support his conviction.
Puracal, then a commercial litigator, got by on a few hours of sleep each night as she worked on the case with a defense attorney and investigators in Nicaragua and brought international attention to the case.
Puracal says Jason lost so much weight that he was “withering away.” He was deprived of food and clean water, and he also was suffering from untreated inflammatory bowel disease, she says.
Finally, in September 2012, an appeals court overturned Jason’s conviction, and he flew back to his family in the United States. It was then that Puracal realized her work had just begun. “I was just so grateful to the community that had rallied around me and my family. I wanted to give back to that community and create that same sense of support around others who have been wrongfully convicted,” Puracal says.
After a stint at the Oregon Innocence Project, Puracal started the Portland, Oregon-based Forensic Justice Project in 2018. Like the Innocence Project, Puracal helps people who are trying to prove their innocence after a conviction. But she also works with clients pretrial to reveal any flawed or misleading forensic evidence to prevent a conviction in the first place. She adds that she represents people “regardless of guilt or innocence because no one should be convicted on the basis of unreliable forensic evidence.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, which has tracked exonerations since 1989, false or misleading forensic evidence has been a factor in 24% of all exonerations. Puracal also wants to reform Oregon laws on forensic evidence, and she files amicus briefs in cases to help educate the courts.
In 2019, Puracal helped exonerate Nicholas McGuffin, who spent almost a decade in prison after he was convicted in 2011 for the killing of his girlfriend, Leah Freeman, 15, in 2000. He was 18 at the time of her disappearance and death. Puracal and her team revealed several missteps by McGuffin’s trial lawyer and prosecutors. Investigators found the DNA of another man on Freeman’s shoes, but that evidence was never revealed to jurors.
Aliza B. Kaplan, who is of counsel for Forensic Justice Project, says Puracal has a knack for explaining the science in court, whether she’s making a presentation or questioning a witness.
“She’s laying the groundwork for lawyers and judges and others to really understand the important role that forensic science plays in convicting people in our criminal legal system, and how it’s often used so inappropriately, in a nonscientific way,” Kaplan says.
Puracal says her work is a “family affair.” Jason and her husband, Andrew Lauersdorf, an attorney and former prosecutor, sometimes help her.
Although prosecutors are often adversarial, she says some are willing to work with her to dismiss a case after they look at the science.
“That has been the surprising thing,” Puracal says. “There is room for us to have a more open conversation about the substance of the forensic sciences that are being used.”
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