This New Law Student Project Gives Innocent Prisoners the Freedom They Deserve

What would you do if you were found guilty of a crime you know you didn’t commit?

That’s exactly what happened to Clarence Harrison. In 1987, Harrison was convicted of the rape of a 25-year-old woman. During the attack, the victim’s rapist stole her wristwatch. After a tip alleging that someone at Harrison’s home was trying to sell a wristwatch, Harrison became the prime suspect in the crime. Both the person giving the tip and the victim picked Harrison's photo out of a line up, clinching his conviction.

It seemed all hope was lost. But in 2003, Harrison reached out to the newly opened Georgia Innocence Project, writing, “Dear sirs, my name is Clarence Harrison. I am presently being held falsely accused of crimes I could not have committed. I am seeking to vindicate myself by the only means I know how.”

After taking on Harrison’s case, the interns working at the Innocence Project found a slide in the victim’s rape kit that proved Harrison's innocence. He was released from prison and cleared of all charges. In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” Q&A forum, Harrison pointed out that his family always maintained his innocence, but was unable to afford legal counsel to appeal the conviction, “My family has always believed in my innocence but have always been bitter because they were not financially able to provide me with adequate representation.”

Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a “national litigation public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent further injustice.” They have freed 306 people, 18 of whom were on death row. According to their reports, those exonerated are disproportionately minority.

There are already Innocence Projects in several states. Last month they opened their doors at West Virginia University, where third year law students will work at interns to solve cases free of charge.

In order for the organization to take on cases, the inmate must have a valid claim to innocence. Already, WVU’s project has gotten  more than 150 applications this far and has several cases pending. Unfortunately, they can’t take every applicant’s case. Ashley Joseph, a WVU law student, told The Daily Anthium, "The most challenging part is probably making our way through the applications and having to reject certain cases."

Just as the program is selective in the cases it can accept, it is also selective in the law students who are involved. Space is very limited; four law students are chosen to participate  at random using a lottery system. But when chosen, those who are able to participate know they’re be helping to make a lasting impact in the lives of the wrongfully convicted.

“These people were shuffled under the carpet by society, and some of them didn’t deserve it," said David Estep, a third-year law student at WVU. "By having this type of program, we are able to help people that are wrongfully convicted of these crimes."

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Bridget Todd

Bridget Todd is a writer, organizer, and educator living in Washington DC. She teaches writing at Howard University and writes about intersections of race, gender, and politics. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Racialicious, and DCentric.

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