PUBLISHED:June 18, 2020

Appellate Litigation Clinic presents Third Circuit oral argument in actual innocence case


A team of four students in the yearlong clinic researched and briefed the appeal on behalf of a federal habeas petitioner.

The Appellate Litigation Clinic presented argument on June 17 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of a federal habeas petitioner who is serving a life sentence without parole for a 1982 murder he maintains he did not commit.

Spencer Scheidt ’20 argued the case telephonically, due to the pandemic shutdown, before a panel consisting of Third Circuit Judges Kent A. Jordan, Paul Matey, and Jane Richards Roth. The appeal was researched and briefed by a team of four students in the yearlong clinic: Farrah Bara ’20, Ellie Hylton ’20, Mark Rothrock ’20, and Scheidt. They were supervised by Clinical Professor Sean Andrussier ’92, the clinic director, who was appointed by the court as pro bono appellate counsel for the petitioner, Gerald Howell. The students entered appearances with the court as student counsel.

In the District Court, Howell, who has been incarcerated since the age of 18, presented new evidence of his innocence. At issue on appeal is whether that evidence can suffice to fulfill the Supreme Court’s actual-innocence standard. While Howell’s conviction was based substantially on the trial testimony of witnesses who were teenagers at the time, several later recanted their testimony and incriminated a different suspect. The clinic team argued that his new evidence satisfies the actual-innocence standard.

Andrussier praised his students’ work on Howell’s case as they navigated the multiple strategic and tactical choices involved in high-level appellate practice. “They researched, drafted, and edited the briefs, worked with a rich record that included a transcript of a jury trial, dealt with appellate motions, and prepared for argument,” he said. “It will serve them well as they embark on their post-graduation judicial clerkships.”

“The appellate clinic was the high point of my Duke Law School experience,” said Scheidt. “I not only learned a ton — about writing, law, and oral advocacy — but also got to work on a fantastic team of motivated students toward a common goal: undoing a legal injustice perpetrated decades ago.”

Hylton also described working with her teammates on Howell’s behalf as a highlight of her time at Duke. “I always looked forward to our weekly strategy meetings,” she said. “I'm incredibly grateful for the practical experience of working on an appeal alongside these teammates.”

The clinic students have accepted clerkships with federal appellate judges on the D.C. Circuit (Hylton), Fourth Circuit (Scheidt), Fifth Circuit (Bara), and Sixth Circuit (Rothrock), and two have also accepted federal District Court clerkships.