By Stephanie Roberts Hartung
For centuries, legal writing has been a vehicle for social change. Over the years, appellate and amicus curiae briefs have been instrumental in bringing about reform in the arenas of marriage equality, reproductive rights, and criminal justice—to name a few.
Law students can use their newly-acquired lawyering skills to pursue the cause of justice. That’s one reason I teach an upper-level legal writing course at Suffolk Law School partnering with the New England Innocence Project (NEIP). In addition to helping students improve their research and writing skills, students can fuel their passion for social justice while working on an active NEIP case.
I first learned about the work of the Innocence Project, and other Innocence Network organizations like NEIP, when I was new public defender working in the California Bay Area. I represented a man who was charged with an armed robbery in East Oakland and faced a minimum of 26 years in prison. He was not the first client to tell me he was innocent, but as I started to investigate, many aspects of the case did not add up. Although he had been positively identified by the victim in a live police show-up, the victim’s original description of the perpetrator did not match my client. And even though my client was picked up while walking down the street just minutes after the crime, he was wearing different clothing, and did not have a gun, or the stolen money.
At the time, the Innocence Project had recently begun its pioneering work of using DNA evidence to exonerate wrongful convicted prisoners. I was shocked to learn that, of the first 150 DNA exonerations, over 75 percent involved positive eyewitness identifications. This new data revealed that eyewitnesses are mistaken far more often than most people believed. Armed with this knowledge, I called an expert psychologist at trial to testify about the frailty of human memory, and my client was ultimately acquitted. I realized that the work of the Innocence Project was exposing the flaws in our criminal justice system—and slowly helping to bring about reform.
When I began teaching at Suffolk Law School in 2003, I looked for ways to get involved with NEIP. I currently serve on NEIP’s Board of Directors and chair its committee on legislative reform. In this capacity, I have been able to maximize student involvement with NEIP at Suffolk. Students conduct extensive case reviews, research and write amici briefs on wrongful conviction issues, and work in support of reforming the system.
Recently, students enrolled in my NEIP-collaboration course conducted a thorough review of a 1982 murder case from Providence, R.I. The students developed legal arguments relating to newly discovered DNA evidence and police misconduct that were ultimately relied upon by assigned pro bono counsel who litigated the case. The students’ work was incorporated into a petition for post-conviction relief before the Rhode Island Superior Court, and ultimately helped convince the court to vacate the conviction earlier this year. In its opinion, the court specifically recognized the work of Suffolk Law students involved in reviewing the case.
In another case, students worked on an amicus brief that resulted in the release of an innocent prisoner serving an extensive sentence on a rape conviction. The amicus brief argued in favor of a new trial, where post-conviction, exculpatory DNA results definitively excluded the prisoner as the source of semen collected from the victim. Although the case is not yet resolved, a single member of the SJC took unprecedented action by staying execution of the prisoner’s sentence and releasing him this past summer. Students will attend the oral argument that is scheduled for later this month, and will hear first-hand how the highest court in Massachusetts receives the arguments they helped develop.
Students have frequently told me that working on wrongful conviction cases is transformative. This work is often the highlight of their law school career and a real impetus to the development of their professional identity. By “writing” wrongful convictions, Suffolk Law students join the age-old tradition of using their lawyering skills for the cause of justice.
Stephanie Roberts Hartung is a Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School. She also is on the board of directors of the New England Innocence Project, which has its office inside the Suffolk University law library. Prior to joining academia, Professor Hartung was a public defender in San Francisco. For more information about Suffolk Law’s Legal Practice Skills program, visit suffolk.edu/law/lps.