Liberty establishes innocence project, hopes to exonerate the wrongfully convicted
- Law, forensics and criminal justice students at Liberty can gain real-world experience working to exonerate wrongly convicted criminals.
- The program is expected to open in fall 2019 due to an extensive accreditation process.
The Liberty University law, forensics and criminal justice programs are teaming up to start an Innocence project at the school in the fall of 2019, providing unique, real-life experience for students and serving the community and state.
According to the website, innocence projects exonerate wrongly convicted criminals through DNA testing and criminal justice system reforms. With the rapid advancement of technology in the field of forensic sciences, the website reports many closed cases from past decades warrant a re-evaluation.
Phil Kline, an assistant professor of law at Liberty, said students would be working on real-life cases with all of the pressures that come with them.
“These students will be having a dramatic impact on their clients lives depending on whether they handle these cases competently and professionally,” Kline said. “It’s a great learning experience for them. Unfortunately, the people who are imprisoned do not have a lot of resources. We want to be able to offer them a voice when that voice should be heard. This is one way to do it.”
Rebekah Meier, a 1L in the Liberty Law School, said she appreciates the real-life implications of the project along with the safer environment provided for the students to learn.
“You’re not just on your own, thinking ‘this is completely on me,’” Meier said. “Yes, it is on you in the sense that this is what you’re doing and working on, but at the same time you’ll be within the boundaries of your legal education and so you can go to your professors who are there and be back and forth with these people who have more experience and more knowledge. “
Dr. J. Thomas McClintock, a professor and the director of the forensic science program at Liberty, said, to satisfy the proper laboratory accreditation for the program, various laboratory components and equipment need to be acquired. In his requisition for funds through the Provost Research Initiative for the needed equipment, McClintock said there have been 1,730 post-conviction exonerations since 1989.
“There have been so many (people) who have been exonerated, and those are the ones who have had the opportunity for someone to fund their testing and have someone fight for their innocence and release,” McClintock said. “It’s really justice through science.”
Abby Groski, a 1L in the Liberty Law School said the program will be coming at a really poignant time for cold cases.
“I think it’s extremely relevant now because there’s a lot of Netflix documentaries that are coming out and podcasts, so people are very up in arms about being wrongly incarcerated,” Groski said. “I think people will be coming in and seeing this and caring more than they would have five or ten years ago. I think people will be really excited about it and want to get involved.”
McClintock said some states are so behind on cases involving the analysis of forensic evidence that the Department of Biology and Chemistry could receive payment for working on such cases.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia… (is) so far behind that the department of justice could award us funds to help the Commonwealth of Virginia (as well as other states) perform some of those backlogged rape cases,” McClintock said.
The team was hoping to have the program up and running this semester, but it will likely start the fall 2019 semester, as the accreditation process is long and complicated.
Joel Cox, an associate professor of Criminal Justice and Government, said taking a shortcut setting the program up would be disastrous.
“The program should be set up in the correct way,” Cox said. “That is what we are doing. We are taking great care in building the proper procedures to ensure the best program possible”.
According to Kline, the process to exonerate a client will be extensive and tough.
“The courts are set up, and understandably so, that there has to be a final determination and reopening a case that has been decided is a legal challenge and the information and evidence has to be compelling,” Kline said. “That’s a big legal hurdle.”
Kline said that time is also a detriment, as a case that is decades old will be hard to get new evidence for, but advancements in DNA technology can open new doors.
“DNA evidence is a great tool for innocence and justice,” Kline said. “It can be evidence of guilt combined with other evidence… (and) it certainly can demonstrate innocence. DNA isn’t always handled properly, isn’t always tested accurately (or) isn’t always reviewed thoroughly at the time that some of these convictions took place.”
According to McClintock, the law school will be taking most of the work in the exoneration process.
“They’re going to be doing a lot of the initial grunt work,” McClintock said. “If they receive 100 cases, they’re going to have to sift through them and see if there is one new evidence that warrants a review of the case, if there is still evidence that could be re-evaluated with new technologies that could demonstrate guilt or innocence and maybe some other information surfaces that warrants a review.”
Kline said the law students will partner with local attorneys to determine if a case warrants a re-review.
“There will be a case intake, and the students will review some of the information, research the law, make a recommendation with attorney oversight whether this is a case that ought to be taken and explored further for additional investigation,” Kline said.
Then, a panel would review the files, and if there is evidence to test, it would go to the forensic science laboratory which would perform serological and DNA analysis and hair examinations said McClintock.
“It’s not a simple process, it’s not a short process but it’s definitely justice through science,” McClintock said.
The criminal justice department would serve as a re-review committee for the cases.
“On our end is a re-review of the case file, and just relooking it with a fine-tooth comb,” Cox said. “Was there anything missed, or was there anything they relied too heavily upon?”
Groski said she expects the program will provide valuable experience in the justice system for up and coming lawyers.
“Especially as us wanting to become lawyers, you want to trust in the justice system and trust that it works, and knowing that this happens and being able to right this wrong is an awesome opportunity as we’re getting into this profession,” Groski said.
Cox said the innocence project will be unique at Liberty because of the array of resources the school makes available.
“I think it’s a very unique opportunity that we have a university that has the opportunity to do DNA testing and has a law school and has a criminal justice program, whereas many universities that have tried this are missing one or two components of that and have to go to the outside,” Cox said.