Students for Innocence Project Works to Exonerate Wrongly Convicted Prisoners

 Second-year law students Genevieve Jenkins, at left, and Christina Murtaugh are among the founders of the W&M chapter of the Innocence Project. Photo by Dusty Parson '10

Last fall, students at William & Mary Law School founded the Students for Innocence Project (SFIP), a student chapter of the Innocence Project organization. SFIP is dedicated to researching and litigating the cases of the wrongly accused, educating the public about the problem of wrongful convictions, and lobbying for laws that make it easier for exonerated defendants to resume normal lives.InnocenceProjectstudents

The Innocence Project is an international non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted persons. It began in 1992 in New York at the Cardozo School of Law, and members' work has resulted in the exoneration of 208 people, fifteen of whom were on death row at the time of their exoneration.

Typically, the Project's full-time staff attorneys and students working in clinics around the world use DNA technology to provide the absolute proof of innocence. More recently, much of the eyewitness testimony used to convict the innocent has been overturned; increasingly, arson evidence and bullet-match evidence also has come into question.

William & Mary Law School has started its own Innocence Project clinic. Under the direction of Richmond attorney Fred Gerson, a 1996 graduate of the Law School, Amber Gaskins '08, Carly Umberger '08, Lavonda Rowe '08, and Tom Robertson '08, review cases referred to them by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. The students review police and forensic reports, court pleadings, transcripts, appellate briefs and opinions as well as correspond with prisoners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses to investigate their assigned cases. If the students find a viable claim of innocence, their review is referred to an outside attorney who will pursue the inmate's case.

But the clinic would not have been possible without SFIP and the dedicated students that were committed to their mission.

"(The students) formed the organization and made a mark with their activities within the Law School, their contacts with national and regional Innocence Project organizations and experts," said James Moliterno, Tazewell Taylor Professor of Law and SFIP faculty advisor. "The students did all of the foundation work necessary to make the clinic a possibility. And they did it in record time with remarkable drive and efficiency."

SFIP at William & Mary has been busy with a variety of projects since its inception. SFIP's Exoneree Outreach Committee helped plan and execute SFIP Awareness week in fall 2006, which included an informational table in the lobby, an exoneree profile drop, and partnering with the Christian Legal Society to bring the Journey of Hope panel - an exoneree, an activist, and a family member of a murder victim - to speak at the Law School.

The Event Planning Committee also has sponsored two movie showings of After Innocence and The Exonerated. After the fall 2006 showing of After Innocence, Beverly Munroe spoke about her experiences as a wrongly convicted person in Virginia.

Four SFIP members attended the March 2007 Innocence Project Conference in Boston, a weekend of lectures and discussions about the Innocence Project. The attendees brought back contacts that SFIP hopes to use to bring guest speakers to campus.

"SFIP is incredibly excited about not only what we have accomplished over the past year, but the opportunities we have with committed first-year law students," SFIP President Christina Murtaugh '09, said. "We are working toward lobbying efforts and an exoneree database, goals that will be accomplished through dedicated individuals and our collective efforts."

"We've altered our goals," SFIP Vice President Genevieve Jenkins '09, explained. "We're no longer worrying about getting a clinic started, but about maintaining the momentum and enthusiasm within the student body for that clinic. We started the year with a huge number of 1Ls interested in the Innocence Project, and their energy will be what carries this organization into its next phase."