Duke’s New Wrongful Convictions Clinic Takes Shape

DURHAM, N.C. James E. Coleman Jr., a professor and associate dean at Duke University’s School of Law, says the lacrosse case in which three White students were wrongly charged in the alleged rape of a Black woman was not the catalyst for Duke’s new Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project.

But, he says, “It made people pay attention to what’s going on in our criminal justice system.”

Over the next five years, Duke University will invest $1.25 million into the center, which Coleman will co-run with Theresa A. Newman, also an associate dean at the law school.

At the center, students are assigned real cases taken up by the North Carolina Chief Justice’s Criminal Justice Study Commission to examine the possibility that a wrongful conviction exists. An undergraduate “Advanced Issues in Wrongful Convictions” course will be offered, as well as minicourses in forensic science, eyewitness identification and false confessions taught by experts. Chances for scholarly research and fellowships will also begin under the new center.

“Three of our students suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the legal system, and we were relieved when their innocence was finally established,” Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead stated in a press release announcing the center. “Nonetheless, their ordeal reminded all of us that our legal system is imperfect and innocent people can be accused unfairly. I am determined that we will make some good come out of the grave injustice that took place.”

The center will also include a public policy initiative that will examine criminal justice and professional responsibility issues. Involved faculty and students will seek to help reform the criminal justice system and help prevent wrongful convictions by providing testimony in support of legislative reforms and drafting model legislation. They may also file amicus curiae briefs, which is where a person not associated with a case volunteers to offer information on law or another aspect of the case to assist the court as it leads up to a decision.

The center may also sponsor public education programs, and its Web site and a publication will expand the number of people exposed to the center’s work. The

Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project is in collaboration with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit founded in 2000 to help combine efforts of the Innocence Project and a similar project at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Similar projects have been established at law schools in the state, including Campbell University, the Charlotte School of Law, Elon University, North Carolina Central University and Wake Forest University. Those partnerships will continue, Coleman says.

The plan is for the funding from the university to help with the center’s establishment. Coleman says organizers hope that, through fund-raising efforts, the center will help diminish issues within the criminal justice system for years to come.

“Our hope is to raise enough money to endow the center,” he says.

“What the university is saying is that it is in the best interests of the university … to examine how the justice system works,” Coleman adds, “and where it’s flawed, to offer ideas (to fix those flaws).”

–Marlon A. Walker

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