Irish barrister studies wrongful convictions at Duke ─ and aids in exoneration

October 3, 2012Duke Law News

As an Irish barrister who has specialized in criminal law during her six years of practice, Alicia Hayes jumped at the opportunity to study wrongful convictions in the United States on a scholarship from the Bar Council of Ireland. Having the opportunity to join Duke Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic was even more appealing; Hayes’ father had studied at Duke’s Divinity School in the 1960s. 

Hayes became part of Noe Moreno’s legal team as soon as she arrived at Duke in late July to begin three months of work with the clinic.  She immersed herself in the details of Moreno’s 2006 arrest, guilty plea, and subsequent conviction on charges stemming from a fatal car accident and the results of clinic students’ multi-year investigation into his case. Their grounds for requesting his exoneration were set out in a motion for appropriate relief (MAR), which was then scheduled for an October hearing in North Carolina Superior Court.

“Alicia mastered the facts in very quick order and, by her second week here, was making significant contributions to the effort,” says Clinical Professor Theresa Newman ’88 who co-directs the clinic with James Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of Law.

Hayes was gratified to see the legal team’s work pay off at an expedited Aug. 31 hearing in Charlotte, when North Carolina Superior Court Judge Richard Boner vacated Moreno’s conviction and ordered charges against him dismissed, based on the evidence they compiled of his innocence.  And she was delighted, in mid-September, to again travel to Charlotte with the team to celebrate his release from his subsequent federal detention pending a hearing on his immigration status.

“It was great to finally meet Noe in person,” says Hayes.  “He was so happy to be reunited with his mother, which is significant, because she is very ill.” 

Honing investigative skills at Duke

Hayes says her interest in innocence work is a natural offshoot of her practice in Limerick and Dublin.  “The more you work in crime, the more you realize that things can go wrong,” she says, adding that innocence work is relatively new in Ireland ─ “so new that we don’t have specific procedures to deal with it.”  At Duke she has learned that investigation is key.

“I have really honed my level of investigative skills here,” she says, having moved on from the Moreno case to the investigation of a 17-year-old murder, for which the clinic client was convicted at the age of 16.  “You have to go back and reinvestigate from the very outset, pretending that no conviction has ever happened.  You have to reinvestigate, re-read, and pull out any loose threads.”  Hayes recalls an evidence chart compiled by Natasha Alladina ’11 as she investigated the murder conviction of LaMonte Armstrong, a client who was exonerated in June.  “She logged an unidentified handprint, writing, ‘Who is the handprint?’  And years later, a reinvestigation [by police] found that it belonged to the real perpetrator.  It shows that you have to start at the very beginning and reinvestigate.”

But redoing investigations “takes a huge number of people,” observes Hayes, who also participates in the clinic’s classroom sessions and Professor Thomas Metzloff’s LLM course, Distinctive Aspects of American Law.  “That’s one of the strengths the Wrongful Convictions Clinic has.  It has great faculty members, it has Jamie Lau [’09] as a supervising attorney, and it has all these wonderful students who are willing to give up their own time to reinvestigate.  It needs a lot of hands and a lot of eyes.  What you need is manpower.” 

Taking a comparative view

Offering a comparative perspective, Hayes notes that certain aspects of Irish criminal procedure may mitigate the prevalence of wrongful convictions that are being revealed across America; these include total preclusion on the use of statements by “jailhouse fabricators,” and evidentiary limits on uncorroborated eyewitness identification, procedures for empaneling juries, and the fact that prosecutors are neither elected nor employed by the State. Procedural reform on such matters as line-ups would go a long way to avoiding false identifications that lead to convictions, she observes.  And reintegration following years of wrongful incarceration and institutionalization is destined to be a thorny problem, she says.

“I had never thought much about it before I came here.  When I got the scholarship to come to Duke I thought about working to exonerate people, not about the other elements of it.  It’s clearly better to avoid wrongful convictions in the first place than to have to work hard for exonerations after the fact, which can take many years.  And then there is the issue of reintegration.  There is really no way to undo the damage that has been done.  So the best course of action is to prevent it from the outset,” says Hayes who goes on to praise the impact the Wrongful Convictions Clinic is having on the problem.

“It’s really amazing,” she says. “We don’t have anything like this at home, so to think that law schools around the country, and particularly at this law school, have students working on real  cases, working to exonerate people and doing just that is amazing to me.  Students get a really good, practical experience here that they probably wouldn’t get otherwise.  They see the ugly side of things.  And there’s always that day that might come when you get up, travel to Charlotte, and see a man exonerated for a crime he hasn’t committed.  To experience that in law school is unbelievable.  I’ve been so lucky to experience it here.” 

Hayes reserves her highest praise for the clinic faculty ─ Coleman, Newman, and Lau.  “Jim and Theresa and Jamie have been absolutely wonderful to me.  They took me under their wings and told me I was part of the family from the day I arrived.  I felt very welcomed. 

“Theresa goes over and above her duties as a lawyer for the exonorees,” Hayes says, recalling Newman’s compassion toward Moreno’s mother at his hearing.  “She’s a wonderful lawyer with so much compassion for her clients and I admire her professionalism so much.  Yet she never allows her compassion to cloud her professional judgment.  And the life of a lawyer Jim has had is something I aspire to.  He, like Theresa and Jamie, is totally and completely dedicated to the cause of exonerating the wrongfully convicted. He often quotes Winston Churchill: ‘Never, never, never give up.’ And they don’t give up. Together Jim and Theresa are a perfect ─ and formidable ─ team. Jamie Lau has taught me so much while I have been here. He has such a keen sense for investigation, reinvestigation and is so hard working, like all the members of the clinic.” 

Exporting newfound knowledge

Soon to be entering an LLM program at the University of Limerick, Hayes plans to write her thesis on wrongful convictions.  First, though, she’ll write a paper for a Bar Review law journal on the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, and another article for a journal entitled Doctrine and Life, which will focus on the moral aspects of the justice system and what occurred in cases like Moreno’s.

“I think it’s important that we always remember how, as lawyers, we are playing a vital role in someone else’s life and for that reason we have to be very conscious about our duties and make sure they are executed correctly and with the most bona fides possible ─ because I think you can get a bit ‘case-hardened’ after a while.  Noe’s case was interesting in that he pleaded guilty. People said, ‘He wouldn’t have pleaded guilty if he hadn’t been guilty.’ 

“We have to challenge our perceptions of the justice system. We have to realize. We have to things go wrong. People confess to crimes they didn’t commit and police and prosecutorial conduct also plays a huge role.  .  People have to take responsibility to chip away at the ‘truth’ that is presented to them.”

Hayes also has been invited to work in conjunction with Ireland’s first Innocence Project ─ an affiliate of the American organization ─ which is currently handling 24 cases.  “I would love to bring innocence work to Ireland on the scale that it is being done in the United States, relative to the population.  It would be great to get a body of people from all different walks of life ─ lawyers, students, professors, and other people ─ who would be willing to reinvestigate and be that fresh pair of eyes.”

Newman has no doubt Hayes can make that happen.  “Her enthusiasm for this work is infectious, and her sense of humor makes even the most difficult tasks enjoyable.”

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