Monday, November 3, 2008

UVa group aims to review death penalty cases

November 3, 2008

Charlottesville Daily Progress-Charlottesville, VA

Earlier in his studies at the University Of Virginia School Of Law, third-year law student James Cass spent a summer reading court opinions in cases that were later exonerated because of DNA evidence.

“To me, it became very apparent that they were innocent,” Cass said, “… even if a person is innocent, that alone is not enough to help them.”

That experience inspired Cass to get into UVa’s new Innocence Project Clinic. The 12-student clinic, which is a member of the Innocence Network, is reviewing death penalty cases to see if the students can overturn wrongful convictions.

The clinic is headed by Deirdre Enright, who said she was asked by the law school’s former dean to propose the student-requested project.

Enright, a 1992 UVa law graduate who has represented inmates facing the death penalty in Mississippi and Virginia, started the local office of the Virginia Capital Resource Center with her husband. She also represented Darrell Rice, who briefly was accused of being the “Route 29 stalker.”

Mary Martin, an investigator who works with the class, said the clinic takes the theory that the law students learn and helps them turn it into practice.

“I think that it makes the law flesh and blood,” Martin said. “This is really what has happened. It’s real life, when prosecution goes awry and evidence isn’t there.”

With the guidance of Enright and Martin, the clinic’s 12 students are researching cases handed down from the busy caseloads of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the New York-based Innocence Project. Unlike some other innocence projects, UVa’s clinic will handle cases without DNA evidence.

“You shouldn’t be spared a second look just because you were unlucky enough to be falsely accused and not have any DNA evidence,” Enright said.

Students don’t necessarily have much to work with when they first start researching a case. Enright said clients sentenced to the death penalty sometimes only have a letter or a police report to pass on so that their appeal can begin. The research process can include requesting files under the Freedom of Information Act, knocking on doors and trying to track down decades-old evidence.

Diana Wielocha, a second-year law student, has already interviewed one potential client who was accused of rape and burglary. The grandfatherly man, who Wielocha said has been imprisoned for more than two decades, told her that he wasn’t in the state in which the crime occurred at the time.

Finding evidence of bad lawyering hasn’t caused the clinic students to shy away from their chosen path. For second-year student Kelly Hodges, it has made her want to be there for people even more than before.

Cass said it has reinforced his faith in his future career.

“It really makes me feel like less of a lawyer and more of an advocate, and that is what these people need,” he said.

If the clients whose cases are being reviewed by the clinic decide to hire them and go forward, Enright said she and Martin would keep the appeals moving forward. Enright said most of her clinic students probably won’t be criminal lawyers, but she hopes that the clinic will inspire them to take on an Innocence Project case.

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