Students and faculty in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the volunteer Innocence Project investigate and litigate North Carolina inmates’ credible claims of innocence. The grant, from the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Assistance, will help fund summer internships in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic for Duke Law students in order to ensure year-round progress is made on cases, as well as costs for investigation, expert and forensic analysis, travel, and litigation support and training relating to clients’ claims.
“This grant will facilitate more efficient and effective investigation and litigation of our cases and help us to significantly strengthen the program in key ways,” said Clinical Professor Theresa Newman, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and a faculty advisor to the student-led Innocence Project. “Our cases rarely involve biological evidence that can be tested for DNA and so require extensive reinvestigation of the facts, or creative and costly efforts to identify ‘touch-DNA’ left behind by the perpetrator of the crime, or to identify what we call ‘non-biological DNA,’ the piece of evidence that will exclude our client as the perpetrator. As we tell our students, this involves a creative, intense, and costly search for loose threads, and not for smoking guns.”
The grant funds will be used to advance the Innocence Program’s 19 current cases, seven of which are likely to be litigated over the next two years. In addition to funding summer internships, the grant will allow the program to hire private investigators, where appropriate, to help locate and contact witnesses; retain experts to review and provide analyses on discrete issues in individual cases and pay for forensic testing; offset the significant costs of faculty and student travel relating to investigations and litigation; and obtain litigation support services such as case management software and copying, collating, and other services essential to proper presentation of Motions for Appropriate Relief to the relevant courts.
“Our mission is, first and foremost, educational – to train future lawyers to understand the causes of wrongful convictions and how to litigate post-conviction innocence cases,” said Supervising Attorney and Lecturing Fellow Jamie Lau ’09, the primary author of the grant proposal. “We will be using some of these funds to provide additional student training to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and to understand the most recent forensic science research that may prove compelling in overturning convictions.”
Since 2010 four clients of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project have been exonerated after serving 12, 18, 17, and six years respectively. None of their cases involved DNA evidence.
“It seems particularly fitting that we received news of the DOJ grant last Friday, during our daylong intensive training of 75 new clinic students and Innocence Project volunteers,” said Newman. “They are energized and ready to immerse themselves in our cases. This grant funding could not have come at a better time.”
The grant award to Duke Law’s Innocence Program comes from the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Wrongful Conviction Review Program that provides assistance to public and nonprofit entities that seek justice for wrongfully convicted individuals. The bureau’s goals are “to reduce and prevent crime, violence, and drug abuse and to improve the way in which the criminal justice system functions,” according to its website.