March 1, 2004
The American criminal justice system contains many features designed to guard against convicting an innocent person. But we are humans, and mistakes happen, and there are innocent people in prison, and there are innocent people who have been executed. We'll never have a perfect system, but over the past few years, investigations by lawyers, journalists, students and concerned citizens, often using new forensic technologies such as DNA, have revealed some shocking flaws in parts of our system. WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS AND THE ACCURACY OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, an article by Law School Clinical Professor Pat Furman, appears in the September, 2003 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, and is an overview of the causes of wrongful convictions. Much of the work around the nation concerning efforts to free wrongfully convicted inmates is chronicled by the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law.
Colorado Law's Wrongful Convictions Clinic focuses its efforts on investigating the claims of Colorado prisoners that, despite being convicted they are, in fact, innocent. We do this by working with the Colorado Innocence Project. That project, organized by Jim Scarboro with the support of his law firm, Arnold & Porter, (arnoldporter.com) receives requests for help from inmates, and evaluates their claims to see if there are factual and legal grounds supporting the claims. When the project finds a case that appears deserving of further investigation, they send it to us here in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic for further evaluation. Students correspond with and meet the prospective clients, review trial and hearing transcripts, read discovery, research the state of the law at the time of the conviction and at present, search for undiscovered errors, determine whether new forensic techniques might help, and make recommendations as to whether the case should be pursued.
When a case appears deserving of being re-litigated, the Innocence Project recruits private lawyers and law firms to represent the inmate, and students in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic are assigned to help in that effort. We have cases in all stages of this process right now. Financial support for the Clinic comes from the Law School and from a grant from the Colorado Bar Foundation, the educational and charitable arm of the Colorado Bar Association (www.cobar.org).
In addition, clinic students are active on the legislative front. In 2002, clinic students wrote, lobbied for, and helped pass legislation that gives Colorado state court inmates access to DNA evidence in the post-conviction setting. Students in his year's clinic are working on legislation requiring that statements of suspects be electronically recorded whenever possible in the hope of reducing the incidence of false confessions generated through inappropriate interrogation techniques and reducing frivolous suppression claims by defendants. The goal, of course, is to improve the accuracy of the information that is presented to the fact-finder.
These cases are difficult and time-consuming. There are huge structural, factual, procedural, legal and practical problem standing in the way. But an effort to free a wrongfully convicted person is as noble an effort as we lawyers can ever undertake, and the students in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic find the hard work well worth it.