IPNW students play pivotal role in freeing innocent prisoners

Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), the only resource of its kind in Washington state, works to free innocent prisoners, remedy causes of wrongful conviction and offer law students an outstanding education. 

In just the past two years, IPNW fielded almost 1,000 requests for help. Currently, there are 49 cases under active investigation or being litigated in Washington state and federal courts and over 100 eligible cases awaiting further review.

Clinic students play a crucial role in these cases. They conduct fact investigation, including client and witness interviewing, detailed review of police reports and trial transcripts, and they work with expert witnesses in various areas of forensic science.

For Brittany Adams and her clinic partner, this work resulted in progress for a client convicted in a 20-year old murder case. She and her clinic partner obtained exculpatory evidence by locating and interviewing witnesses in southern Washington.

“The opportunity to interact with, and interview, witnesses has been illuminating,” said Brittany Adams, a 3 L student. “Each time my clinic partner and I were able to speak with someone, we developed better strategies, became more confident and articulate, and left with more information.

“IPNW was the first prolonged teamwork experience I’ve had since beginning law school and it was perhaps the most valuable takeaway from clinic work,” she said. “The opportunity to bounce ideas off one another, develop effective communication and share responsibility has been a great learning experience.”

Through their work with IPNW, students have co-authored petitions for post-conviction DNA testing, motions for new trials and appellate briefs. Students have worked with their supervising attorneys to negotiate agreed orders for DNA testing and reversals of conviction.

“Identification and investigation of cases where new evidence has the power to provide compelling evidence of innocence is complex and time consuming,” said Jacqueline McMurtrie, IPNW Clinic Director and professor of law.

“Every case is unique,” she said. “I learn alongside the students as we develop strategies to advocate on behalf of clients who have no other access to justice.”

Efforts to improve criminal justice in Washington and support exonerees has led to important reforms and new laws involving eyewitness identification procedures, the preservation of evidence and access to post-conviction DNA testing and the right of exonerees to receive compensation for their wrongful convictions.  

Clinic students at Innocence Project Northwest gain an understanding of why the criminal justice system makes errors and learn about ways the system can be reformed to decrease the number of wrongful convictions.

Learning extends beyond the clinic

Four students attended the 2018 Innocence Network Conference in Memphis to learn about Race and Wrongful Convictions.

This national event brought together members of the innocence movement for two days of powerful sessions during the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conference featured a host of educational sessions that addressed the historic fight for civil rights and our movement’s fight for justice for the innocent today. 

“The Innocence Network conference further opened my eyes to the methodical corruption of our criminal justice system,” said Che Schirmer, JD ’18. “It is one thing to believe your client’s innocence and the system’s failure of one. It is wholly another to see the faces of hundreds of wrongfully accused tell their stories of ubiquitous injustice.

“The conference not only galvanized my own efforts to pursue my client’s claim of innocence, but it also encouraged me to share these same stories of casually committed transgressions with others,” Schirmer said. “I consider the Innocence Network conference to be the single most impactful experience of my law school career and its effect will certainly shape my future actions as a professional for years to come.”

Ongoing Work of IPNW Clinic Students Relentless

Schirmer briefed and argued successfully a motion for post-conviction DNA testing in Spokane Superior Court. We are awaiting the DNA test results. Students investigated cases involving false confessions, mistaken witness identification, incentivized (also known as snitch) testimony, ineffective assistance of counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct and flawed forensic evidence.

14 people who collectively served more than 100 years in prison for crimes they did not commit have been exonerated by the Innocence Project Northwest since 1997.

They visited clients and applicants in prisons across Washington State as part of their tireless efforts to seek justice for those wrongfully accused. They also workshopped eyewitness identification issues with Dr. Stephen Ross, a legal psychologist and associate professor at UW Tacoma.

Since 1997, Innocence Project Northwest has exonerated 14 people who collectively served more than 100 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Students helped secure freedom for many other individuals.