by Jenn Watson, Class of 2016
Innocence is not a subject addressed in depth in Criminal Law and related courses, so students in the Innocence Project Clinic begin by learning about where innocence petitions and remedies fit into criminal justice through an academic review of cases of wrongful convictions. They have the opportunity to listen to and speak with guest lecturers such as retired detectives and pro-bono lawyers, and they learn through examining real problems and attempting to solve them.
The largest part of the course allows students to act as investigators. The Innocence Project Clinic works with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) to investigate cases in order to determine whether there is merit to the innocence claims. The clinic is allocated cases by MAIP, and then the students work to build the case files. In any innocence case, the burden is to prove innocence.The standard for innocence claims is quite high, and it is not enough to simply retry the case. New affirmative proof must be found, and this can be done through DNA testing and biological methods in some cases. However, in the majority of cases, there is insufficient DNA evidence to rely on and the entire case must be re-investigated, which can be quite challenging as these cases tend to be older, and witnesses and information can be difficult to find.
Students who begin a case will start by reviewing the original trial to see how the case was built and determine whether there were substantive things that the lawyers did not do or address. Students may even get to interact with the attorneys who worked the cases and access their materials. In some cases, witnesses subsequently recanted and need to be questioned again. In others, the police may have committed some misconduct or coerced a confession.
When students build a case file, they will access case documents and records that may be located in a variety of places, such as police departments, clerk’s offices, and forensics labs. All of this information has to be reviewed and analyzed in order to see whether it can be integrated into an innocence claim. In addition, students will find and interview witnesses who may be difficult to reach or not inclined to cooperate, and they correspond with clients and may even visit them in jail.
In cases where there is biological evidence, the DNA can be tested. Students in the Innocence Project Clinic learn about DNA testing and get certified through a government course. However, finding that the DNA is not the client’s is generally insufficient, and the DNA evidence must further show that there was an unknown contributor to the crime scene DNA.
There are three types of conclusions that the student investigators can reach. First, that the claim has merit, in which case it moves on to the MAIP to be pursued further. Second, that the guilt of the petitioner is confirmed, and the case is dropped. And lastly and most commonly, that there is not enough information to determine whether the petitioner is guilty or innocent, and that conclusive information may be impossible to obtain. Although the first outcome is the ideal one, it is also the least common, but when it does happen, students may have the opportunity to assist with actual trial preparation.
The Clinic has found cases with merit, but none yet have been outright pursued or granted. Individual students may have two or three files open at different stages of investigation, and a particular case may be delayed if it is difficult to get ahold of a key witness, or a case may suddenly develop when a lead pops up unexpectedly. Some students may choose to take two semesters of the Clinic instead of just one, as this allows them to spend more time working on their cases and developing their files.
For students interested in Criminal Law, the Innocence Project Clinic encourages them to consider a new perspective. One student currently in the clinic said, “Any student interested in being a prosecutor or defense attorney can benefit from the clinic, because it challenges preconceived notions about our criminal justice system and forces students to look at cases from different angles.”
Even for students not interested in pursuing Criminal Law careers, the Innocence Project Clinic can teach valuable skills. Another student said, “The hands-on investigation is very different from most externships or other clinics, and you really learn how to talk to clients or witnesses who may be uncooperative or trying to deceive or manipulate you. This type of contact can’t be simulated, and anyone going into law should have the opportunity to get these kinds of experiences.” In addition, having the opportunity to review and analyze cases in depth can also be highly relevant for students interested in appellate work or trial advocacy.
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