PUBLISHED:September 02, 2009

Former Duke Innocence Project client gains freedom

Sept. 2, 2009 — Duke Law Innocence Project alumni and students are celebrating the exoneration of Joseph Lamont Abbitt, a former client. Abbitt, 49, will be released from prison today after serving more than 14 years of a life sentence for the 1991 rape of two teenage girls in Winston-Salem who had identified him as their attacker. He was exonerated by DNA testing of biological evidence.

Duke Innocence Project volunteers reviewed and investigated Abbitt’s initial claim of innocence in 2006, 2007, and 2008, working under the supervision of faculty advisers Theresa Newman ’88 and James Coleman, in cooperation with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which coordinates the work of the Innocence Project chapters across the state.

DNA testing of evidence remaining from the original investigation of the Winston-Salem police took place this summer with the consent and cooperation of the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

Christine Mumma, executive director of the innocence center called the case one of “unfortunate misidentification,” a major factor in 75 percent of cases where DNA testing leads to exoneration.

Duke Law alumni and students who worked on Abbitt’s case include Meredith Tanchum ’07, Landon Zimmer ’07, Amanda McRae ’09, Mahynoor El Tahry ’09, Julia German’09, Jesse Haskins ’09, Eric Eisenberg ’09, and Dan Queen ’10.

“This dramatically demonstrates how justice can finally be achieved when everyone works together to right a wrong,” said Newman who, with Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law also co-directs the Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility. “Our talented students laid the groundwork for the exoneration, and then Chris Mumma worked with the Forsyth County District Attorney's Office to obtain Mr. Abbitt's freedom. We are thrilled for Mr. Abbitt and for our students, who now see how they can make a difference.”