Student Pro Bono Clinic Investigates Claims of False Conviction

The members of the 2014-15 board are, front row: Kate Mason '15, Katie Clifford '15, Jessica Saba '16, Rachel Ashton '16, Hannah Thibideau '15; back row: Ray Szwabowski '15, Lauren Kramer '16, Jackie Ryberg '15, Mario Peia '15, John Kendrick '16.

Under the supervision of Director of Investigation Deirdre Enright, board members of the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic serve as case managers on innocence inquiries. The members of the 2014-15 board are, front row: Kate Mason '15, Katie Clifford '15, Jessica Saba '16, Rachel Ashton '16, Hannah Thibideau '15; back row: Ray Szwabowski '15, Lauren Kramer '16, Jackie Ryberg '15, Mario Peia '15, John Kendrick '16.

October 3, 2014

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A new extracurricular pro bono effort at the University of Virginia School of Law is giving students hands-on experience investigating potential false convictions in the state's criminal justice system and supporting the work of the school's Innocence Project Clinic.

The Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic recently transitioned from being a student-run organization (the former Virginia Innocence Project Student Group, or VIPS) to an independent clinic, but still operates with the same mission. Students vet claims of innocence from Virginia convicts who have exhausted all other avenues for appeal. The pro bono clinic exists separately from the Law School's for-credit Innocence Project Clinic, and the work is done under the supervision of Innocence Project Clinic interim director Deirdre Enright.

"When it became clear that people were working long hours in VIPS, we transitioned to a pro bono clinic," Enright said. The change allowed students to better track hours that count toward the school's 75-hour Pro Bono Challenge.

Pro bono clinic president Katie Clifford, a third-year law student, said the investigation process begins with sending potential clients a questionnaire. If cases show merit, she said, students may soon find themselves combing through court transcripts or working with a private investigator to knock on doors and corroborate facts.

"We try to find out what went wrong," Clifford said. "In that process you sometimes realize that errors were made, but there isn't a demonstrable claim of innocence."

Of the handful of cases that move forward each year, the for-credit Innocence Project Clinic, which in February exonerated a man falsely accused of rape, handles the more complex litigation.

But the pro bono clinic also pursues cases, and expects to take on eight this year, Enright said. The cases include the potential exoneration of an inmate who was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. That case, being investigated in conjunction with the for-credit clinic, will be featured starting Friday on the NPR program "Serial," a spin-off from "This American Life. "

The cases are organized by case managers on the clinic's board. Second- and third-year law students, most of whom have taken the for-credit clinic, typically serve as project leaders. Other professionals, such as the private investigators they use, are hired as needed.

With that support, "the new volunteers of the pro bono group will never have to feel that they are being hung out there on their own," Enright said.

At least 60 members of the first-year class signed up to participate in the pro bono clinic after an informational meeting earlier this month. Clifford said working pro bono in her first year of law school was good training for when she took the for-credit clinic, which is limited to 12 students, in her second year.

In addition to investigating claims of innocence, the pro bono clinic sometimes takes on special projects. Last year, students researched Virginia law enforcement interrogation policies through Freedom of Information Act requests (see sidebar below).

The clinic also organizes the Virginia Innocence Project's yearly fundraisers to help the charitably funded organization meet expenses.

Christine Shu Gilleland '14 Discusses FOIA Project on Police Interrogation Policies

Christine Shu Gilleland '14Through the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic, UVA Law students submitted more than 300 Freedom of Information Act requests to law enforcement agencies last year to collect information on interrogation policies in Virginia. Professor Brandon Garrett analyzed the research and reported earlier this month that Virginia's agencies often lack written policies, and only a handful require that questioning be recorded. (More)

Christine Shu Gilleland '14, who managed the FOIA research with Chris Lisieski '14 and Katie Clifford '15, began the process of sending FOIA requests during her first year at Virginia, but put together a team of students during her second year when she realized the magnitude of the project. She described her efforts:

"I came to realize that the VIPS FOIA project was not just gathering information to make it easier and more efficient for us to represent its clients. Rather, it was an exercise in compiling a much-needed database that had never been gathered before. The database would benefit both law enforcement organizations and defenders alike. "I was surprised to learn that the law enforcement organizations do not communicate with one another regarding their experiences in implementing these policies. Each organization has its own process and learns from its own experience. As it turns out, the organizations were missing out on a major opportunity to learn from one another's experiences in writing and implementing these policies.

"Several months after beginning to lead the project, Professor Brandon Garrett contacted our FOIA Project to ask if we would share data with him. He was able to compile the data and analyze the policies and their implementation. His research began a state-wide discussion about policies and sharing information regarding policies. Our project was able to help begin a movement towards sharing information on policies between law enforcement organizations.

"The two most challenging aspects of the FOIA project were collecting the policies and managing the students. We collected policies for hundreds of law enforcement organizations. We sent a FOIA request to each one individually. For the first several weeks after sending out the FOIA requests, I was on the phone with the organizations for most of the hours of the work day when I was not in class. As a group we had to figure out the best way to keep track of which organizations we had contacted, which organizations had sent the policies, and with which organizations we had to follow up. In addition, we had to develop the most efficient and logical way to categorize and store the policies. From the experience, I learned how to motivate and manage people, and how to organize people and information. I also learned how exhausting it is to try to start such a database and how important it is for a dedicated organization to continue to update such a database."

 

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