Wrongful Convictions Clinic client has conviction overturned after 17-year imprisonment

July 7, 2010Duke Law News

July 7, 2010 -- On July 6, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Charles P. Ginn ordered the release from Avery-Mitchell Correctional Center of Jonathan Scott Pierpoint, who served 17 years of a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Ginn’s order overturned Pierpoint’s 1992 conviction for first-degree sexual offense and dismissed the charges against him. The district attorney for Madison County, Jerry Wilson, did not oppose a motion from Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic for Pierpoint’s release.

Clinical law professor Theresa Newman, co-director of the clinic, represented Pierpoint at a hearing July 6, at which Pierpoint’s alleged victim, his former stepson, testified. Eight at the time of the alleged abuse, the accuser recanted his story at age 13 and has been steadfast in his insistence that Pierpoint is innocent, blaming his false testimony on his youth and on inappropriate influences from those charged with his care.

“In light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror would have found the defendant guilty by a reasonable doubt,” Ginn stated in his order.

Faculty and students in Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project worked for two years to develop their claim that Pierpoint’s conviction was the result of false testimony. During that investigation, they also identified troubling issues related to Pierpoint’s prior legal representation.

Pierpoint’s 1992 trial lasted less than a day and a half.

“At the end of the hearing, the judge told Pierpoint’s former stepson that there were few people who would pursue justice for so many years and with such earnestness,” said Newman. “The judge told him he would be able to take pride in his actions for the rest of his life.”

Newman echoed the judge’s praise. “This is a young man who has been trying to get people to listen to him for years,” she said. “Finally, Duke Law School listened. Once the district attorney’s office and the judge listened, justice could be done.”

Newman worked on Pierpoint’s case, along with recent law school graduates Jacob Warren and Craig Porges, and 2007 law school graduate Christian Dysart, who worked on the case in his capacity as a graduate fellow with the law school’s Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility.

Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic investigates and, where appropriate, litigates claims of innocence made by incarcerated felons. Under the direction of Newman and James Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, clinic students study the causes of wrongful convictions, manage cases and perform a wide range of duties, including interviewing inmates and witnesses, gathering documentation, writing legal documents and working with experts. The Duke Law Innocence Project is a student-run volunteer organization similarly dedicated to investigating claims of actual innocence.

For more information, contact Forrest Norman at (919) 613-8565.