Monday, 26 March 2007

University of Richmond launches its own innocence project

Earl Washington

University of Richmond launches its own innocence project



Law school students here could bring hope to wrongfully convicted inmates in Virginia.

This semester marked the opening of the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond School of Law. For class credit, students will review requests from inmates who proclaim their innocence and have exhausted other means of appeal. They will be looking for legal grounds to apply two recent changes to Virginia's law that permit new DNA or non biological evidence to be presented long after trial.

Professor Mary Kelly Tate said she was inspired to create the institute after hearing a speech by Peter Neufeld. He is a defense lawyer who helped found the Innocence Project, a program that focuses on using DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people.

Neufeld represented Earl Washington Jr., who came within days of execution for a 1982 murder before being cleared by DNA evidence in 2000. Washington's was one of several recent cases of wrongful conviction in Virginia.

Although 35 to 40 such programs exist across the country, including the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington, D.C., Tate believes the Richmond law school institute is the first such program in Virginia.

Neufeld applauded the new institute.

"You can never have too many people concerned about exonerating innocent people," he said.

Tate teaches a prerequisite course on the causes of wrongful conviction. Race, social and economic factors all contribute, as well as poor interrogation techniques by police, false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Most of the time, she said, the criminal justice system works as it should and guilty people go to prison. But it's important to help students recognize the possibility for error in the system before they begin practicing law, she said.

"We make mistakes," she said. "There's something sort of primitive in society's unwillingness to face that."

Students will cull cases from requests sent by inmates who fill out a 25-page questionnaire. Before agreeing to take a case, students will read trial transcripts and outline a strategy for pursuing legal challenges to the conviction. Tate expects that students in the course will not carry more than three cases at a time. Lawyers from the community will help shepherd cases through the court system, she said.

Tate's mission at the institute is a personal one. She helped represent Tommy Strickler, who was sentenced to death for the 1990 rape and murder of a James Madison University student. A state appeals court overturned his conviction because prosecutors withheld some evidence during Strickler's trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld his conviction.

Strickler asked Tate to witness his 1999 execution, and she did. Although the institute does not focus on death penalty cases, Tate's experience shaped her thinking on weaknesses in the criminal justice system.

"If we're going to have the death penalty, it seems to me we need to strengthen the criminal justice system to make it as accurate as humanly possible," she said.

Third-year law student Patrick Teuch is taking the class. He hopes to work in criminal defense when he graduates. The idea of helping an innocent person be released from prison intrigues him. "You want to know why it happened and how we can keep it from happening," Teuch said. "In the grand scale, it helps to refine the process and make it better."

Dean Rod Smolla said the law school has long urged students to give back to their community through free legal representation for poor people. The institute bolsters those teachings, he said.

And Richmond has been the focus of wrongful conviction discussions because it's home to the state forensic lab, where DNA testing has cleared several people. "We are in the state capital, in the center of the state, in the middle of the action," Smolla said.


The Virginian-Pilot is published in Norfolk.


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,

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