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Tennessee Law Students Wrap Up First Year of Innocence Clinic

KNOXVILLE Tenn. – University of Tennessee law students have completed their first year of a clinical program designed to explore the provable innocence claims of inmates and help set them free.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that the Innocence Clinic, operated as an academic clinical program within the college’s Legal Clinic, began in fall 2009 and allows third-year law students to work with a supervising attorney to investigate claims of innocence.

“We look at cases where someone’s made a claim of innocence, and we determine whether it’s viable,” said Steve Johnson, a trial attorney and partner with Knoxville firm Ritchie, Dillard, & Davies, P.C.

The students have been working on three murder cases and a rape case.

Johnson could not discuss specifics about the cases because of professional rules of conduct. But he said some of the cases already are being challenged in the courts, while others soon will be.

“Those students have gotten more work done in the past nine months than the Innocence Project did in four to five years,” Johnson said.

Students work with one of four adjunct professors and supervising attorneys for the clinic as well several private attorneys.

The clinic has evolved from the Tennessee Innocence Project, which was started in 2001 under the direction of Ken Irvine, a private defense attorney at the time who now is a Knox County assistant district attorney general. It consisted of a network of volunteer lawyers and law students but shut down after 2006 when it was overwhelmed with requests for help.

At the start of the Innocence Clinic in 2009, a team went through old correspondence and case notes from the original Innocence Program to determine which cases required follow-ups.

Ben Barton, director of clinical programs, said the intake is now outsourced to paid students, and the clinic performs the actual investigation.

“It’s important overall for justice in our entire country,” Barton said. “It’s important to find the errors. Students can work backward from the errors and really learn a lot about the court system.”

The Innocence Project, a national organization based at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, started in 1992. Barry C. Scheck, who gained national prominence during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, and Peter J. Neufeld founded the project, spurring similar efforts in more than 40 states, including Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina.

The Innocence Project says about 255 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row.

Students have spent the last two semesters studying the cases, conducting interviews with witnesses and thoroughly documenting their work for the next group of students that might take over the cases after the semester ends.

No single case outcome makes a student’s grade. Rather, it is the work done throughout the year, Johnson said.

“In this type of post-conviction work, you don’t realize how long things can take,” said law student Kristi Bogle. “This helps give us a more realistic view of how slow the process can be.”

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