Colorado Innocence Project finds new home at Law School

Heather Gioffredi, 2L, is learning that despite numerous safeguards contained within the American criminal justice system intended to prevent the conviction of an innocent person, sometimes it still happens. After working with the Colorado Innocence Project (CIP), she still believes in a fair and honest justice system and yet realizes that there is room for improvement in the law.

CIP is a Colorado Law School program dedicated to releasing wrongfully convicted inmates while providing an exceptional educational experience for students enrolled in the program. Gioffredi is in her second semester with the program and plans to return next fall for another year.

“It’s important for people who are wrongfully convicted to have a chance to be exonerated,” said Gioffredi. “It’s difficult knowing that there are innocent people in prison, but having an avenue for them to get help respects the system as whole.”

CIP was founded in 2001 by a group of lawyers led by Jim Scarboro (’70), a partner in the Denver office of Arnold & Porter. The project was formed under the umbrella of the Colorado Lawyers Committee, a nonprofit consortium of law firms that engages in pro bono work. In 2010, CIP moved to its current home at Colorado Law.

Clinical Professor Ann England spent more than nine years as a public defender before joining the law school’s clinical faculty. She is the director of CIP and also teaches in the Criminal Defense Clinic at Colorado Law.

Since CIP is new at the law school, England has spent the past year re-designing the program. She has established sections in which 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls have particular responsibilities and all groups learn from each other. She hopes this strategy will make the program more self-sustaining.

“CIP is a nice foray into understanding criminal law within the context of working with a human being,” said England. “Students come to law school to do good, to change the world, and to help people, so they dive into these people’s stories. It’s a very personal way to start looking at the law.”

The goal of CIP is to provide high-quality legal services to incarcerated clients claiming innocence who otherwise could not afford a lawyer after their convictions have been affirmed on appeal. These cases have complex structural, legal, and practical problems to be surmounted before an innocent person can walk free.

John-Paul Sauer, a 3L, has been the student director of CIP for the past two years. After graduation, he plans to remain involved with the program while pursuing a legal career in general litigation in technology and intellectual property.

“The Innocence Project reviews post-conviction cases with the presumption of innocence at arms reach,” said Sauer. “Through investigation, we attempt to construct a legitimate, fact-intensive story of innocence. Often we find glaring holes, impossible facts, or insurmountable procedural barriers. Our cause drives us to press on.”

The process starts with students reading the 30 or more letters sent to the law school each week from inmates requesting help of some kind. What England’s students look for initially are the letters where individuals claim they have been wrongfully convicted and that they are innocent of the charges. Often the letters are nearly unintelligible because the inmate is illiterate or does not speak English, but if the students can decipher a name or a Department of Corrections number, they can research the inmates’ cases.

If at this point the case meets CIP’s criteria, students send the inmate an application, which contains more detailed and focused questions.

The cases call on students to handle a lot of legwork, such as reviewing transcripts, reading investigative reports, speaking with previous counsel, researching the state of the law at the time of the conviction, searching for previously undiscovered errors, determining whether new forensic techniques might help, and making a recommendation as to whether the case should be pursued.

CIP won’t take a case if the defendant has a lawyer or is entitled to a lawyer at state expense. CIP takes cases that have a genuine and provable claim of innocence and gets involved only after the traditional methods of appealing a conviction have failed.

When a case appears deserving of re-litigation, students take the case to the advisory committee of lawyers for review. There have to be legal grounds for the committee to pursue release. If the case passes that hurdle, CIP recruits private lawyers and law firms, as well as investigators and experts, to represent the individual.

“After conviction, and assuming there is no re-trial, the presumption of innocence is gone,” said Sauer. “Through appellate proceedings, there is a presumption of guilt and heavy deference to the trial court. Each participant in the project has a deep conviction that prison for an innocent person is among the worst evils society can perpetrate on an individual.”

Since 2010, students have presented approximately 40 cases to the committee for review. If CIP can’t take a case, inmates are referred to other law groups or organizations.

“It’s easy to become emotionally involved in these cases,” said Gioffredi. “It helps somewhat to know that even if we can’t help them personally, we can still help by steering them in another direction.”

Working with CIP has taught Gioffredi how to go through a file and determine what information is important to the case and how to interview witnesses and clients—skills that are important no matter what type of law a student plans to pursue. Gioffredi has three potential cases she’s working on that may be ready to present to the committee at their next meeting.

“Knowing how to interview people and talk to other attorneys is important in any area of law,” said Gioffredi, “while knowing how to go through a file or record is especially important in appellate work.”  

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