October 13, 2015

University project aims to free wrongly convicted locals

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Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 10:45 pm

Individuals across the state who have been wrongly convicted are receiving assistance from an organization comprised of University of Cincinnati law professors and students.

Co-founded by law professor Mark A. Godsey in 2003, the Ohio Innocence Project was established as part of the Rosenthal Institute for Justice thanks to a significant grant from local philanthropists Richard and Lois Rosenthal.

Godsey and mayor John Cranley were the project’s founding directors.

Caster joined the Ohio Innocence Project as a staff attorney in August 2012.

“I wanted to be part of the project because of the tremendous professional opportunity OIP offers: the chance to choose one’s own clients, litigating only on behalf of the people who are truly innocent of the crime for which they are incarcerated,” Caster said.

Godsey, who is the institute director for the Ohio Innocence Project, has actively participated in the project since he helped found it.

“Personally, Mark is also one of the nicest, most caring people you could hope to know,” Caster said. “He also has a good sense of humor, which always helps when you’re working long hours on some very serious cases.”

The University of Cincinnati’s College of Law is the physical home of the OIP. There are similar projects in 46 other states and a number of countries, which all share the goal of freeing wrongly convicted individuals.

Unlike other projects, the Ohio Innocence Project does not limit itself to cases with available DNA evidence.

Some students choose to attend UC Law specifically because of its connection to the OIP.

Emily Gallagher, UC Law Juris Doctor candidate 2015, is one of those students who attended UC for that reason. Gallagher has been serving as one of the project’s fellows since May.

“The work of OIP appealed to me because we have an opportunity to put a stop to the tremendous injustice of depriving someone of his freedom for something that he didn’t do,” Gallagher said. “More than that, though, I believe that the dramatic stories that come to light through the work of OIP draw attention to fundamental problems with the criminal justice system and may prompt reform.”

Fellowships for the Ohio Innocence Project are a one-year commitment with students working full time over the summer and part time throughout the school year. UC Law students who participate in the program play a vital role in finding inmates in Ohio prisons who are innocent of the crimes they are convicted of committing.

 “You are able to impact the lives of your clients and their families through your work and dedication to seeking the truth,” said Courtney DiVincenzo, a current OIP fellow.

The Ohio Innocence Project selects up to 20 law students to become fellows for the project each year. They typically begin in the summer and continue through the end of the following school year.

“The most appealing thing about the project was that I would be able to impact someone’s life,” said Rachel Hensley, OIP fellow. “The work done by OIP is often the last chance for inmates seeking exoneration because they have exhausted other appellate procedures available to them.”

This year’s fellows work on a number of cases. In many cases, the students will investigate and determine if there is any evidence to prove innocence.

“We also have four hours per week designated as our office hours when inmates can call in to talk with us about their cases,” Gallagher said. “I have also had the opportunity to visit two of our clients in prison to discuss the cases with them in person. We present updates on our work in cases to our staff attorney at a weekly meeting.”

Additionally, the fellows have an opportunity to research legal issues and draft motions for new trials or request for DNA testing after a case is accepted by the OIP.

“If we have a case where we think there may be DNA testing available to us and it could help prove the inmate’s innocence or guilt … then I write up a motion to submit to the court,” Hensley said.

Some of the fellows’ other responsibilities include contacting the inmates and their families for additional information, requesting public records, reading appellate opinions, talking to their trial and appellate attorneys, contacting witnesses and reading trial transcripts.

“The fellows are the life-blood of OIP,” Caster said. “They are our principal investigators.”

The students who participate in the fellowship are responsible for getting in contact with the project’s inmate clients. These students receive grants from a fund at the law school for students who are working for public interest.  

“Very rarely do law students get the opportunity to meet with their clients, let alone be the ones directing the investigation; OIP has made this a daily responsibility of mine,” Hensley said.

All three of OIP’s staff attorneys are UC Law graduates.

“There are also several faculty members who routinely help prepare the staff attorneys for court, usually by conducting a ‘moot court’ session,” Caster said.

Jodi Shorr, OIP administrative director, supervises students, proofreads briefs and coordinates the logistics for the various court appearances.

“Without Jodi’s herculean efforts, OIP just wouldn’t function,” Caster said.

Some of the most prominent cases, according to the College of Law’s website, include that of Clarence Elkins, who was exonerated in 2005 and released from a life sentence for murder and double rape. Another case is that of Raymond Towler, who was exonerated in 2010 through DNA evidence after serving 29 years for rape.

In addition to these notable cases, OIP has been responsible for the release of 17 wrongly convicted individuals.

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