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Wake Forest University School of Law introduces Innocence and Justice Clinic

The Wake Forest University School of Law’s new Innocence and Justice Clinic will give students the unique opportunity to examine the legal, scientific, cultural and psychological causes of wrongful convictions.

The interdisciplinary course begins in the spring semester of 2009. Students will then apply their knowledge to actual cases by reviewing and investigating claims of innocence by inmates and, where appropriate, pursue legal avenues for exoneration and release from prison. Students will meet two hours a week to examine and discuss the substantive law that addresses the causes and remedies associated with wrongful convictions. Students will be placed in pairs and assigned actual cases to investigate situations in which inmates are claiming innocence.

The class will review criminal files, interact with police investigators, contact prosecuting attorneys, gather documentation, prepare legal documents and memos and apply critical legal skills to a client’s case. Students will meet with faculty to discuss the ongoing progress of their cases and what needs to be accomplished to further the review and investigation of the inmate’s claim.

Topics covered in the classroom will include mistaken eyewitness identification; false confessions; “junk” forensic science; the role of forensic DNA testing; post-conviction remedies for innocence claims; the use of “jailhouse snitches” and cooperating witnesses; police and prosecutorial misconduct; and re-entry programs and post-conviction remedies. The class will discuss proper investigation and interview techniques with guest speakers from local law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices. Carol Turowski and Mark Rabil, co-directors of the Wake Forest Innocence Project, will teach the three-credit clinical course.

In addition to the creation of the Innocence and Justice Clinic, the student-run Innocence Project has been made a formal student organization. The Innocence Project will explore joint projects with The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice to focus on educating the public about wrongful convictions; protesting executions and injustices in the system; and supporting families of those incarcerated, among others.

“We hope through the new Innocence and Justice Clinic and the student Innocence Project to create collaborative learning experiences between the programs that fit in with the University’s goal of a more integrative learning experience,” Turowski said.

Associate Dean Ron Wright described the Innocence and Justice Clinic as “the latest component of our larger effort to enrich the experiential learning available to Wake Forest students.” The law school, under the direction of Dean Blake Morant, is expanding clinical opportunities, and exploring externships and other methods of integrating the classroom with the realities of legal practice. “Our current students, our alumni, and even some prospective students are very excited about this new clinic,” Wright said.

The new clinic and the student organization are an outgrowth of the School of Law’s DNA Innocence Project that began during the 2007-2008 academic year. When the Forsyth County Bar Association began a project to identify prisoners who might benefit from DNA testing to demonstrate their innocence, it received so many requests that the Bar Association asked for help from Wake Forest law students. The Law School agreed to manage the project under the auspices of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.