PUBLISHED:July 01, 2008

High school students take crash course in wrongful convictions

July 1, 2008 — Twenty-seven high school students chose to forgo summer pastimes such as lazy days at the beach and theme parks June 16-27, in favor of an intensive Duke Law course in criminal justice, viewed through the lens of wrongful convictions. Ranging in age from 15-17, and coming from all parts of the country, the students participated in the Law School’s inaugural Talent Identification Program (TIP) hosted by the School’s new Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility.

The TIP course, one of a number held at Duke University, is designed to give young people exposure to the fundamentals of U.S. criminal law and procedure, the judicial system, the appeals process, and existing post-conviction options — as well as to the Law School, explained Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Theresa Newman, who specializes in innocence issues and oversaw the course. “The Law School has a special obligation to reach outside our immediate community to help others understand the workings of the U.S. criminal system,” she said, calling the outreach to high school students particularly rewarding. “They have greatly inquisitive minds and fresh ideas, and they brought all of their energy to the course.”

Tondra Manning, a Durham middle-school forensics teacher who served as one of the lead instructors in the course, emphasized the importance of exposing students to “a well rounded view of the law with the ability to see both sides. Everyone incarcerated may not be guilty.”

While some students offered personal motivations for enrolling in the course — a number cited aspirations to careers in criminal law and one girl explained that a relative had once been wrongly charged with a crime — others wanted to test the veracity of shows like “Law and Order” and “CSI,” which highlight forensic science and the justice system.

In fact, the students spent a morning conducting their own forensics investigations in small groups — dusting for fingerprints and attempting to solve a case through forensic analysis. “They were really excited by [the forensics exercise] and were really into learning how it worked and how it plays a part in the legal system,” said Manning, who teaches at Shepard IB Middle School in Durham.

In addition to other hands-on exercises and lively class discussions, the students took part in a mock trial before Dean David Levi, a former federal judge, taking on the roles of jurors, witnesses, defendants, and victim, as well as members of the prosecution and defense teams. Levi questioned each juror and gave opposing counsel a chance to approve jury selection before the trial began. The students’ clear engagement with the trial proved they were excited to “practice” what they had learned in class.

Field trips included a trip to the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, the non-profit organization that coordinates inmates’ pleas for assistance, tours of the Durham County Courthouse, where the students observed several small trials, and the Polk Correctional Institution, which houses young adult offenders. The last was “eye-opening,” said Danielle, a student from Florida, noting the lack of air conditioning among other harsh living conditions. “I couldn’t imagine being in those places in the summer.” Other students took note of the high percentage of young African-American men in the inmate population. “As a young African-American male, it hurts me to see so many other young African-American males in prison,” one student noted. “It just makes me so sad.”

Teamwork was emphasized throughout the two-week course. “A ton of work in the law is about working with other people,” explained Amber Jordan, a rising 2L who served as one of four law student instructors for the course. “Be respectful of others’ ideas, don’t interrupt, and don’t dismiss others’ ideas.” That proved to be sound advice, said Candace, a student from South Carolina who called the overall TIP experience “extraordinary.” “I’ve enjoyed meeting new people along with their different views,” she said. “You can express your opinion and also understand someone else’s point of view.”

The course culminated with teams of students studying real cases — looking for small details that may indicate an individuals’ innocence — and deciding whether or not they warranted further investigation by the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. The teams presented their recommendations to their classmates, who voted on whether or not they agreed. Newman noted that for the most part the students’ assessments were on target with those of the professionals who also reviewed the cases.

The course had a profound effect on the four Duke Law students who served as instructors, as well as their TIP charges. “There is nothing like teaching a subject to help you learn it,” observed Jordan, who has worked as a Duke Innocence Project volunteer.

Jordan and 2010 classmates Megan Beesley, Zachary Oseland and Slavik Gabinsky praised the TIP participants’ engagement in and out of class throughout the program. “It was unique to see a group of young people from different racial, socioeconomic, geographic, and ideological backgrounds get along and have in-depth discussions about complex issues,” said Beesley, who added that her TIP teaching experience helped rekindle her passion for the law. “It was great to end a stressful year learning the law by coming together and remembering the astonishing things the justice system can do. The experience reminded me why I’m in law school and gave me some inspiration for year two.” -Curtis Henderson