Duke Law students, faculty, celebrate NC man's exoneration

September 25, 2009Duke Law News

Aug. 29, 2007 – Students and faculty involved in Duke’s Innocence Project and Wrongful Convictions course were elated when Dwayne Dail gained his freedom yesterday. Dail’s conviction for the 1989 rape of a 12-year-old girl was set aside by a Wayne County (NC) superior court judge after newly discovered DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Now 39, Dail had served more than 18 years in prison.

Through the Innocence Project and the Wrongful Convictions course, Duke Law students worked on Dail’s case at several different times after it was taken up by the non-profit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence six years ago, as did students at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina Central University law schools, said Associate Dean Theresa Newman. Newman, who teaches Wrongful Convictions along with Professor James Coleman, said that because all the evidence collected in the investigation was thought to have been destroyed, the center was going to close the file on Dail’s case. Only “one last call” to the Goldsboro, NC, police department by a center staff member revealed existence of new, previously overlooked evidence.

“It was absolutely amazing to be in the courtroom yesterday,” Newman said. “Dwayne’s family was there and thrilled to have him coming home, and Dwayne was overjoyed at being set free. He was a little overwhelmed because it was all happening less than 24 hours after the DNA exclusion.

“My deep regret was that every single student from Duke who has worked on any innocence case, including Dwayne Dail’s case, was not there to realize the unbelievably great benefit of the work that they do. At times that work is quite tedious — working through files, closely analyzing trial transcripts, searching out the very last document, making numerous phone calls. Here, after years of working on a case, one last phone call before the file was closed restored this man’s life to him.”

The Innocence Project’s student volunteers — who held their inaugural meeting of the school year yesterday — did, indeed, find Dail’s release inspiring, said 2L Jeff Ward, the organization’s president.

“Cases like this one give hope not only to those who have suffered the injustice of a wrongful conviction, but also to their allies, including all the students who toil relentlessly for another’s freedom,” Ward said. “There are students who have stuck beside an inmate all throughout law school and long after, never giving up hope the inmate's story will end like Dwayne Dail's. It's easy to lose hope when you encounter the hundredth dead end. So, Mr. Dail's exoneration serves to reinvigorate all of us.

“I also think his case and the media attention it receives can serve to push North Carolina law in the right direction,” Ward added. “When people see that the theft of 18 years of Mr. Dail's freedom could have been avoided by simple improvements to the rules that regulate preservation of evidence, hopefully they will support legislative changes that accomplish these and similar ends.”
Innocence Project student leaders and faculty serve cake in Star Commons in celebration of the exoneration of Joseph Abbitt.