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Students at the University of Houston Law Center just might be the last hope of some death row inmates in Texas. About 30 of the students have joined the new Innocence Network, set up this spring at the law center to screen and investigate claims by the condemned that they were convicted for a crime they didn’t commit. This local project is part of a nationwide movement that’s been spurred by the recent exonerations, through DNA testing or newly discovered evidence, of inmates whose cases, in many instances, were once considered open-and-shut. In Texas, the execution of Gary Graham raised questions about the validity of eyewitness evidence and started a debate about the possibility of innocent inmates on death row. Proponents of the movement to clear innocent prisoners say interest is high in creating local projects. “A lot of schools have expressed a very serious interest in this,” says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. “We’ve had many queries from law schools across the United States about trying to replicate the New York program and our program.” The New York program is the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded in 1992. There, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, along with volunteer law students and attorneys, review cases and challenge convictions, based on DNA testing of evidence. The Cardozo program takes cases from throughout the nation where inmates could be cleared through DNA, while the Northwestern center limits itself to Illinois death-penalty cases where innocence could be proven on any basis. At the center, law students under the supervision of faculty and outside attorneys help in researching the cases of inmates who have claims of innocence or serious injustice. Their work can include conducting interviews and going on prison visits, says Warden, a former legal-affairs journalist. The Northwestern center officially opened in October 1999, an outgrowth of a conference on wrongful convictions in death penalty cases that was held the year before at the law school. At that conference, Northwestern Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall — now also legal director of his university’s wrongful-convictions center — and Scheck, director of Cardozo’s program, urged other law schools to start local projects as part of a national Innocence Network. The idea is at work in Seattle, where the Innocence Project Northwest was founded in 1997. With the help of the University of Washington School of Law faculty and students, attorneys provide representation to inmates they believe are wrongly convicted of serious crimes. The project takes cases from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. In Chicago, there is no shortage of volunteers who want to help clear the innocent. “The center has become incredibly popular among students and outsiders,” Warden says, adding that he recently received two resum�s in one day from people who wanted to work there for free. TEXAS APPROACH Lawyers in Texas hope for the same response. They’re already well along with a proposal to start the Texas Innocence Network. “This is a movement that’s groundswelling,” Cynthia Orr, an associate with Goldstein, Goldstein and Hilley in San Antonio, says of the movement to re-examine guilty findings. Getting a reversal of a conviction has been difficult because the justice system has assigned a priority to finality, she says. “In the civil realm, it might work,” Orr says. “But when we’re talking about weightier matters in criminal cases, like life and liberty, maybe the importance assigned to finality should give way.” Orr already is working with Scheck on a Texas case that involves DNA evidence and is identifying other cases that might be miscarriages of justice. A St. Mary’s University journalism class is helping on one case, she says. William Allison, a partner in Allison & Bassett in Austin, says he’s drafted a proposal and organizational charts for the Texas Innocence Network, as well as a screening questionnaire. In addition, he’s already begun looking for funding, but declines to say just yet where he’s applied for grants. He and other organizers envision a statewide organization that serves as a central processing point for inmates who have claims of innocence. Inmates who qualified for assistance would be assigned a team of lawyers and students to help them out, with the Texas Innocence Network providing support, says Allison, who is also a clinician at the University of Texas School of Law. He says the overload of cases at Cardozo’s Innocence Project led to the idea for a similar organization in Texas. “They’ve just gotten overwhelmed,” Allison says. “There’s more demand than there is capacity.” In addition to the statewide network, Allison is putting together a proposal to start a separate clinic at the law school in Austin, where students working under the supervision of a clinician would investigate innocence claims. The clinic would be an in-house operation with its own cases, he says. The university has a traditional death penalty clinic, which has been in operation since 1987. The clinic provides assistance for attorneys who represent inmates in capital cases, mostly with post-conviction appeals. It differs from the Innocence Network-type of programs because these appeals can be based on any claim, from innocence to ineffective assistance of counsel to prosecutorial misconduct. “Our project is to continue providing help to everyone who needs support,” says Raoul Schonemann, one of the clinic’s supervising attorneys and a partner at Schonemann, Rountree & Owen in Austin. The clinic is primarily an educational program, where law students work under the supervision of attorneys to learn the complexities of capital punishment law, Schonemann says. The students, who receive course credit, assist lawyers with all sorts of tasks, including legal research and factual investigations. “Students get exposure to the expertise needed in these cases,” Schonemann says. “It’s appropriate for them to have exposure to the unique kinds of demands of these types of cases.” At the Houston Law Center, students can sign up to work at the Innocence Network either for clinical credit, which requires them to work a certain number of hours and take a class, or as a volunteer. Approximately half of the 30 students there signed up for credit and half as volunteers. Cases, which can come directly from a death row inmate or from a lawyer, first go to Professor David Dow for an initial look. If Dow — who teaches constitutional and death penalty law and who is handling several capital cases himself — decides a case is substantial enough to merit an investigation, he passes it on to a two- or three-member screening team. This team of students sends a questionnaire to the prisoner and then works the answers into a narrative. If the narrative shows a basis for an initial investigation, a game plan is devised, including who to interview and which documents to gather. A second team, which can include students who did the screening, is put together to start the probe. About 20 cases are in the screening process now, and four are being investigated, Dow says. The time needed to investigate will vary, he says. A team of four students has been looking into one case since mid-April, while another investigation just involved an interview with one witness, Dow says. That case ended in the execution of the inmate, he says. Other Texas law schools have been talking about whether and how to set up innocence projects. Interest has been renewed because of the work by the Cardozo and Northwestern programs, says Catherine Greene Burnett, associate dean and law professor at South Texas College of Law. “Starting last spring, I’ve had a steady stream of students who want to get involved,” Burnett says. There are still lots of questions about how the project or projects would work, including whether to take capital cases only or all criminal cases where innocence is asserted, she says. Allison predicts that once the various projects are set up, there will be a flood of students who want to work on innocence cases. “This is interesting enough stuff that students will be beating down the doors to do it,” he says. “This is cutting-edge work where literally miracles take place. This is interesting to law students.”

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