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Kansas Students Help Woman Appeal Murder Conviction

LAWRENCE, Kan. — University of Kansas law students helped a woman win an appeal of her conviction in the murder of a Topeka homeless advocate.

The university law school’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies filed the appeal on Kimberly Sharp’s behalf and presented oral arguments in March before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The appeals panel ruled this month that Sharp was unconstitutionally convicted in the 2006 slaying of 38-year-old David Owen. The decision sent Sharp’s case back to Shawnee County District Court for a second trial.

In this type of federal case involving constitutional claims, it’s nearly impossible to win, said Jean Phillips, Project for Innocence director and Kansas law clinical professor.

“This is really pretty rare,” Phillips told The Lawrence Journal-World. “They’re very difficult. … It’s really hard to meet that standard of review.”

Phillips’ name went on the legal brief for the Sharp case, and she presented oral arguments because the federal court does not allow students to do so. But as in all Innocence Project cases, law students do the work under her supervision.

Kansas law graduate Josh Barry worked on Sharp’s initial filings, Phillips said, and Abby West, a 2015 graduate of the law school, researched and wrote the brief that was submitted to the appeals court.

Sharp and two men were convicted of first-degree murder in Owen’s death. A fourth person was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Owen, a homeless advocate, was at a homeless camp when he got into a confrontation and was dragged into the woods and tied to a tree, where his body was later found.

In her brief, West sought to prove that Sharp’s rights were violated when the trial court admitted statements she made to police that were not voluntary. The federal appeals court agreed in its unanimous decision that Sharp’s confession was involuntary and should not have been admitted at trial.

Phillips said she was proud of the students’ work.

“The whole focus of the project is for students to be the lawyer,” she said. “My job as the supervisor, I’m the safety net.”

West said the work of defense attorneys is important but often misunderstood.

“It’s different in every case why someone comes to the Innocence Project,” West said. “Really what’s happening for a lot of people is they’ve had their constitutional rights violated. … We want to protect those rights for everyone.”

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