Chasing the truth: externship helps the innocent


Lindsey Rudd

Melissa Bodner, a fourth- year law student, is an extern for the Innocence Project.

When Michael VonAllmen walked into a neighborhood bar for a cold beer on a Sunday night in Louisville in 1981, he had no idea he would be fighting for his freedom for the next three decades.

VonAllmen didn’t know that just two nights prior, while he was at a party, a young lady was abducted at gunpoint from that same bar, and then raped, robbed and sodomized in a nearby park.

Flyers were circulated with a description of the old green car used in the abduction and a police sketch of the assailant. The assailant was a heavy-set man with dark curly hair, much like VonAllmen.

VonAllmen drove home from the bar and parked his blue Volkswagen next to his neighbor’s green `68 Chevrolet. A tipster called police with the two license plate numbers, claiming they may be linked to the crime.

VonAllmen was arrested after the victim picked him out of a photo lineup. A jury convicted him in 1983, despite the lack of physical evidence and the witnesses who testified to VonAllmen’s whereabouts on the night of the crime.

With the help of the Kentucky Innocence Project, VonAllmen walked out of a Jefferson County courtroom a free man on June 4, 2010, 27 years after being wrongfully convicted.

“These folks just fell out of the sky after I had already come to terms with the way life is,” VonAllmen said. “And it’s become, ‘What can I do with the rest of my life?’ It’s a life changing experience.”

VonAllmen spent 11 years incarcerated and 16 years on parole as a convicted felon and sex offender because of a crime he did not commit, but he is not bitter or resentful.

“The appreciation of life, it’s much greater once it’s been stolen from you,” VonAllmen said.

VonAllmen came to Northern Kentucky University to share his story with the Chase College of Law students who participate in an externship with the Kentucky Innocence Project.

Kentucky’s Innocence Project was developed by the Department of Public Advocacy in 2001 to provide investigative and legal assistance to Kentucky prisoners with provable claims of actual innocence.

The project has just two staff members, Chief Investigator James “Jimmer” Dudley and Supervising Attorney Linda Smith. They also offer law students the opportunity to participate in an externship with the project.

Melissa Bodner is in her final year of law school at Chase, and is passionate about being a participant in the externship.

“My undergrad is in criminal justice so I did a lot of research on the Innocence Project,” Bodner said. “This year was my first opportunity to get involved.”

According to Dudley, the program could not work without the help of the students from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law, University of Kentucky’s College of Law and University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law.

Every year, each university allows 10 students to participate in an externship with the project. They meet for two hours every other week and must put in 100 hours of documented work to earn credit hours towards their degree.

Smith and Dudley travel between the three universities to facilitate.

Participants are assigned cases to investigate, supervised directly by Innocence Project staff and respective faculty advisors, according to the project’s website. Typically, externs collect and review case documents, interview the client and witnesses, visit the crime scene and draft motions when necessary.

The website outlines how externs can sharpen their professional skills while performing a valuable service to those wrongfully incarcerated by the Commonwealth.

A former Marine Special Agent, Dudley completed a tour in Iraq, fulfilling a General Crimes mission with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Dudley screens the applicants and facilitates the investigations.

“I can follow police investigations, that’s my wheelhouse,”Dudley said. “I see what the police should have done or why didn’t they ask this or go there. Linda is the directing attorney; she does the law stuff. I don’t see that level.”

According to Dudley, the Kentucky Innocence Project has successfully exonerated 15 people who were wrongfully convicted. They currently have over 300 open cases in their system, with more requests rolling in each week.

Dudley said that, unlike other innocence projects across the country, Kentucky’s does not limit cases only to those where DNA evidence exists. They strive to release all wrongfully convicted Kentuckians. The project will review, investigate and litigate any case of factual innocence, if new evidence can be developed or found through the investigation.

“We look for particular claims like false confession, mistaken identity, faulty DNA evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct,” Dudley said. “We pay particular attention to cases out of Louisville because we’ve had four exonerees from there. Four exonerees, not just four cases.”

VonAllmen was one of those four.

“Mike is a constant reminder for me at the blink of an eye; anybody can be sitting in prison,” Dudley said. “Mike has every reason in the world to hate everybody and hate life, but he sees all the good in everything because of all the bad he has seen. And that means a lot.”

Typically, once students complete the externship, their cases are turned over to new students the following year to pick up where they left off, Dudley explained.

Last year, Dudley allowed a couple of students to continue working their cases. He said he felt comfortable doing so because they were dedicated and worked hard.

Bodner hopes to be able to continue working her cases.

“My dream job would be working with the Innocence Project,” Bodner said. “I would love to stay involved.”