Innocence and Justice Clinic dedicated to teaching students, working on claims of wrongful convictions

Photo of Mark Rabin and Darryl Hunt

Mark Rabil (left), the director of the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic and Darryl Hunt, the director of the Darryl Hunt Project, pose for a portrait at the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic. (Winston-Salem Journal Photo by Andrew Dye)

Paul Shaner spent 15 years of his life locking up and supervising criminals, working as a law enforcement officer with the Nevada Department of Public Safety.

Now, he spends most of his time working to free people who might be wrongfully convicted. He is a third-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law and participates in the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic.

“You get isolated,” he said about working as a law enforcement officer. “You get tunnel vision. You don’t really allow yourself to account for the possibility that the people you’re supervising are really innocent or were convicted on faulty evidence.”

His experience taking classes and working on cases involving innocence claims has been eye-opening for Shaner.

“There are a lot of assumptions you make you never question,” he said.

Mark Rabil, a Winston-Salem lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases, is the director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest. He compared the clinic to medical school, where the students participate in autopsies and find out what caused someone to die. At the clinic, law students find out what went right and what went wrong with a criminal case that might have resulted in a wrongful conviction, he said.

“It’s a great way to get the truth of what actually happened and a great way for students to know (a case) from the ground up,” Rabil said. “It’s not about one side or the other; it’s about finding out what happened.”

The clinic, which started in 2009, recently moved off the Wake Forest campus and into a new building at Reynolda and Polo roads, providing the clinic with more office space. The clinic has had 61 law students since it began.

Rabil said the United States has more than 40 innocence projects or clinics, including the Innocence Project at Duke University School of Law.

The idea behind the clinic began much earlier with the high-profile case of Darryl Hunt, who spent about 18 years in prison after his murder conviction in the death of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor for the former afternoon newspaper, The Sentinel. But in 2004, Hunt was exonerated after DNA evidence pointed to another man, Williard Brown, who confessed to raping and killing Sykes.

Rabil was Hunt’s attorney from the beginning and worked with Hunt to prove his innocence.

“It was for me the 20 years of work on Darryl’s case that had shown me that there was a need to investigate these cases and try to help people who are behind bars and who are innocent,” he said.

In the spring of 2004, a few months after Hunt was officially exonerated, Rabil talked to the law school about starting the clinic. Around the same time, Tom Keith, then Forsyth County district attorney, began a program in which inmates who believed they were innocent could contact the Forsyth County Bar Association if DNA evidence was used in their case.

Around 2008, the bar association transferred the project to the law school, and it was supervised by Ron Wright, a law professor, Rabil said.

After Blake Morant was hired as dean of the law school, the idea for a law clinic started to get off the ground.

The clinic has three components – working on innocence claims from inmates who believe they were wrongfully convicted, public awareness about issues in the criminal justice system that could lead to wrongful convictions and a pro bono project to help felons released from prison overcome obstacles in getting housing and employment. The clinic helped sponsor a two-day event on wrongful executions, and onTuesday, the clinic will have the Rev. Joe Ingle, a noted prison rights activist.

Rabil said it takes months and sometimes years to get through innocence claims, which the clinic gets from several sources. Sometimes, inmates contact the clinic directly. Other times, the clinic gets referrals from the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission and through Hunt’s nonprofit organization, the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. Hunt’s organization is now housed at the clinic but operates separately.

The clinic screens the cases, gathers court documents and if necessary, interviews witnesses, Rabil said. Sometimes not everything is in the transcript, he said.

Rabil said the clinic has screened and investigated about 300 cases and has about 120 active cases in various phases of screening and investigation.

In 2010, the clinic achieved a victory in the case of Marchello Bitting. In January 2002, he was convicted of attempted armed robbery at a convenience store on Old Rural Hall Road in December 2000. He was sentenced to about 10 years, but clinic law students that the sentence was based on inaccurate information that he had been on probation in South Carolina.

Judge William Z. Wood granted a motion for appropriate relief filed by Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, and Bitting was released.

Tina Samuel-Priestley, a third-year law student, participated in the clinic this past spring semester and is working with the clinic on an independent study basis.

She said she has learned a lot from her experience. The work can be hard and tedious because students have to track down witnesses and gather court documents in cases that may be 10 years old.

“I went in with all this optimism,” she said. “The reality is how much time and what an uphill battle it is.”

But her passion for this kind of work hasn’t dissipated.

“I didn’t expect myself to be so invested in these cases,” she said. “I didn’t expect to become so involved emotionally.”

She credits Rabil’s leadership.

“The level of his passion and commitment to this work, which is not glamorous and takes so much out of you…it is absolutely admirable,” she said. “It burns bright, and it is contagious.”

Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project in New York, said clinics like the one at Wake Forest do important work.

“Nationally, we have a huge backlog of cases,” he said. “Anytime there are groups that are willing to put in the effort to try to prove someone’s innocence…that is something that is clearly important.”

He cited the recent case of Damon Thibodeaux, a Louisiana man who became the 300th person to be exonerated through DNA evidence.

“As we have seen from the 300th DNA exoneration, there are significant cracks in the system,” he said. “We need more resources to prove these wrongful convictions.”

Shaner, the former law enforcement officer from Nevada, said his experience with the clinic has made him think differently about the criminal justice system.

For him, the work of the clinic is about seeking the truth of what happened and not being afraid to admit mistakes.

“I never let my ego get in the way of truth,” he said.

For more information about the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law, click here.

Click here for a link to this story in the Winston Salem Journal.