CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, January 7, 2019

McMurtrie on Innocence Clinics, Client Representation, and Legislative Advocacy

Jacqueline McMurtrie (University of Washington - School of Law) has posted A Tale of Two Innocence Clinics: Client Representation and Legislative Advocacy (Daniel Medwed, Ed., Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution: Twenty-Five Years of Freeing the Innocent (Cambridge Press 2017)) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Actual Innocence, published in 2000, tells the story of innocent men and women who are convicted and imprisoned, and the contributing causes of their wrongful conviction. The book includes an agenda of criminal justice reforms to protect the innocent. Clinical law faculty responded to Actual Innocence’s call to establish clinics “to represent clients in DNA and non-DNA cases.” The number of law school clinics providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they were convicted grew exponentially in the following years. Since 1992, when the Innocence Project in New York City launched the first innocence clinic at Cardozo Law, thousands of students have either represented or provided legal assistance to prisoners exonerated through DNA testing or other newly discovered evidence.

The partnership between the innocence movement and clinical legal education is fitting given the shared benefit to each of involving students in the exoneration of wrongly convicted. clients. Doing so furthers the innocence movement’s primary goal of freeing innocent prisoners. And, client representation innocence clinics address clinical legal education’s mission to teach students essential lawyering skills while achieving social justice. Yet very few innocence organizations, including those based at law schools, employ faculty or staff who focus on policy reform. Only one organization, Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), offers a clinical law experience devoted to policy advocacy. Since the IPNW Legislative Advocacy Clinic was first offered in 2011, law students have successfully advocated for bills to compensate the wrongly convicted and preserve biological evidence. 

This chapter summarizes the innocence movement’s successes, and describes the challenges it faces moving forward client and policy advocacy. It discusses why the innocence movement’s early focus on client representation was a natural fit for clinical legal education programs. The article explores having the innocence movement join forces with a new wave in clinical legal education, which recognizes the advantages of engaging students in policy advocacy and community education to achieve social change. Some law school offerings are ‘integrated’ or ‘combined’ clinics, where students represent clients and participate in broader-scale projects. Others, like the IPNW Legislative Advocacy Clinic, immerse students in an exclusive policy experience. The integrated/combined and project-based clinics expand a student’s toolkit of transferable legal skills by engaging students in a wide range of non-litigation strategies. Most importantly, as the IPNW experience demonstrates, the clinics are effective in achieving social change. This may be the time for the innocence movement to issue a new call to law schools: ‘to establish clinics to redress the causes of wrongful conviction.’

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