Photographed by Hillary Schave

Attorney Cristina Bordé believes there are imprisoned Latinos serving time in Wisconsin for crimes they did not commit. And she wants to set them free.

To work toward that goal, Bordé, clinical instructor and supervising attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, launched the Wisconsin Latino Exoneration Program. Housed at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the program provides legal assistance to Latino inmates in the state who have been wrongfully convicted and whose innocence can be shown by conducting DNA testing of the evidence.

Bordé, New York-born but primarily raised in her parents’ native Colombia, has a lengthy legal resume. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she worked as a staff attorney for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. She then joined the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, where she worked for more than a decade helping provide California Death Row inmates legal representation.

“What is the right thing to do? That matters to me and it’s inherently interesting,” Bordé says of her motivations—and her findings.

As she perused statistics on the National Registry of Exonerations, a live compilation by several universities, she noticed that the number of white and African-American inmates exonerated from wrongful convictions matched or exceeded the percentage of those groups in prison. But Latinos accounted for only 12 percent of exonerees despite making up 22 percent of the imprisoned population.

“There must be a dearth of people providing the representation that’s needed,” Bordé thought at the time. That prompted her to seek a two-year, $633,000 federal Department of Justice grant to launch the Latino Exoneration Program. She’s seeking more funding in 2018.

Due to her experience working to represent California Death Row inmates, and importantly, her fluent bilingual skills, Latina heritage and cultural competence, Bordé is highly qualified to handle or direct others to work on Latinos’ exoneration cases.

Cultural competence in legal representation is important because an accused’s national origin, native language, personal background, and the subtle cultural references and word choices they exhibit in all phases of their criminal case may spell the difference between understanding and misunderstanding—and verdicts of innocence or guilt.

“They’ve been through the system with all these people who often haven’t understood them,” Bordé says.

For example, court reporters, who may only speak English, are transcribing an interpreter’s translation into English. That in itself may miss some subtle nuances of the language, like colloquialisms.

“There’s a number of well-studied wrongful convictions—perjury, false confessions, false evidence—in all cases that are likely to also be present in the cases with Latinos. And then there’s additional factors like interpretation [and] immigration problems that could lead them to be more at risk. And yet, they’re under-represented.”

The program’s attorneys and law students have identified a handful of Latinos’ cases to pursue from among the roughly 100 applications they received. Exoneration cases can take many years, Bordé says, so there’s no predicting when the program’s first case will be complete.

Wisconsin Innocence Project Supervising Attorney Maria de Arteaga has faith in Bordé’s dedication to follow through with work that ultimately hopes to bring reform to the criminal justice system and prevent wrongful convictions in the future.

“Cristina is a fearless advocate for her clients,” de Arteaga says. “Post-conviction defense work can feel like an uphill battle sometimes. Nonetheless, Cristina’s persistence and dedication to the cause is unwavering and inspiring.”

– Marni McEntee

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