Law students help free the innocent

It’s like something out of a John Grisham novel.

As part of the Kentucky Innocence Project, 10 third-year law students from Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University are working to free inmates in Kentucky prisons who are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

The program was created in Kentucky by the Department of Public Advocacy as an answer to the public concern about innocent people behind bars. The department sends lengthy applications to inmates who claim actual innocence and have new evidence to support their claim.

The department is then responsible for the initial screening of the applications, and the ones that pass the department’s qualifications are handed off to law students and their supervisors.

Diana Queen, criminal defense investigator for the Department of Public Advocacy, believes that NKU students have been critical to work done for the project. “The NKU students are terrific,” Queen said. “We’ll see several exonerations because of their hard work, and we’re grateful to NKU for being involved.”

Chase Law students work side-by-side with University of Kentucky Law students and students from the University of Louisville Brandeis Law School.

According to Mark Stavsky, the Chase faculty supervisor to the project, students interview the clients, visit the crime scene and do everything that a real investigator would do. It is an elective worth two credit hours, but it’s worth more than credit. “This is an enormous benefit to them even if they don’t want to go into criminal defense,” Stavsky said. “Even if someone is not exonerated, it’s always a success because you’ve taken a case from start to finish.”

Queen agrees. “It gives students some real life experience. They get a peek of what the legal process is really like. It also educates the public. No matter how great our legal process is, it’s not infallible,” she said.

Students are required to participate in the project for two straight semesters, and to commit to a certain number of hours, which is one of the reasons that it attracts mainly third year law students. They have taken the bulk of the classes that they need and their schedules are usually more flexible.

The cases that the students are working on “…generally involve murder, rape, and aggravated assault. These are very serious felonies, but we haven’t had a death penalty case,” said Stavsky. “Most of the cases that we’re handling are individuals who have exhausted all of their appeals.” Stavsky went on to say that the goal of the students, and of the project in general is “Trying to determine whether or not this individual did what they were convicted of.”

Stavsky’s main concern is the students. He hopes that through this project that they get the training that they need, and are able to put the work that they did in law school thus far to work for them. “Two weeks ago students went to a crime scene and spent as much time there as the police,” Stavsky said. “It’s a learning experience.”

Queen does hands-on work with the students involved in the project. She teaches the curriculum on investigation and supervises the students with the help of the staff of Gordon Rahn, the current Innocence Project Coordinator.

In 2002, two NKU students were instrumental in the exoneration of Herman May, who spent 13 years in prison and was wrongfully accused of raping a Franklin County woman in 1988.

The National Innocence Project was founded by two lawyers from New York working out of the Benjamen N. Cardoza Law School. They started it in 1992 when DNA evidence was still fairly a new process and are now considered top legal experts in the field of post-conviction DNA testing.

According to the Innocence Project of the National Capitol Area’s Web site, as of July 2003 there have been 111 people in 25 states that have been released from Death Row with evidence of their innocence. The site goes on to state that according to a 1996 National Institute of Justice report, “Reasonable credible estimates are that up to 10 percent of our national prisons population may be factually innocent of the crimes for which they are convicted.” In other words 200,000 innocent people are currently serving time in American prisons, according to the site.

“We’re in this for the long run,” said Queen. “As long as there are people in prison to free.” Stavsky, however cites a different reason. “I do this cause it’s fun,” he said.