Washington Innocence Project wins major victory for client
On March 12, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court issued an order on behalf of Robert R. Williams, a Washington Innocence Project Clinic client, that signaled a huge win for the UW Law team who served as advocates and counsel.
Led by Jacqueline McMurtrie, UW Law professor emerita and Washington Innocence Project founder, a team of students argued Williams’ conditions of confinement violated the state constitution’s prohibition against cruel punishment, as well as the federal constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Williams is a 78-year-old Black veteran who is wheelchair-bound and largely immobilized on his right side after suffering a stroke in prison in 2010. In this case of first impression, the court found that Article 1, Section 14 of the Washington state constitution provides more protection in the conditions of confinement context than its federal counterpart, and that Williams’ current conditions of confinement were cruel.
The court ordered the Washington State Department of Corrections to immediately remedy the conditions, transfer him to home confinement or release him.
“Serving Mr. Williams was the greatest honor of my law school career, and working in the Innocence Project, and with Jackie in particular, showed me the value of service and what service really means,” said Dayton Campbell-Harris, who partnered with fellow clinic student Tierney Vial to serve as student leads on the case.
“When you do this type of appellate work, you're really doing an autopsy on our adversarial system — and it’s dismaying to learn how it can go wrong and how difficult it is to correct.”
Founded in 1997, the Washington Innocence Project — formerly Innocence Project Northwest — is the third-largest innocence organization in the country working to free innocent prisoners, remedy causes of wrongful conviction and offer law students an outstanding education.
The efforts of Washington Innocence Project attorneys, clinic students and volunteers have exonerated 14 men and women who collectively served over 100 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
“When you do this type of innocence appellate work, you're really doing an autopsy on our adversarial system — and it’s dismaying to learn how it can go wrong and how difficult it is to correct,” Vial said.
In this case, the Washington Innocence Project team began litigation in May 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. All of the 2019-2020 clinic students contributed to drafting or editing the briefs. Campbell-Harris and Vial were the lead clinic students and continued their work as advanced clinic students in the 2020-21 academic year.
In addition to filing motions to supplement and supplemental briefing, the pair also argued the case in the Court of Appeals, Division III, in fall 2020. Washington Innocence Project DNA Staff Attorney Kaylan Lovrovich '19 and McMurtrie served as co-counsel.
“We felt as prepared as we possibly could have been given all the support we had, not just from Jackie and Kaylan, but from all the legal aid organizations, nonprofits and attorneys in the area who chose to help us,” Campbell-Harris says. “It wasn't just the preparation with writing and preparing the briefs — it was about actually getting the feedback from all these incredible appellate attorneys as well.”
When the Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision denying the petition, the team filed a motion for discretionary review by the Washington Supreme Court, which was granted in February 2021. They also asked for a special setting in March, which was granted. McMurtrie argued on behalf of Williams on March 11, 2021.
“We felt as prepared as we possibly could have been given all the support we had, not just from Jackie and Kaylan, but from all the legal aid organizations, nonprofits and attorneys in the area who chose to help us.”
The Washington Supreme Court issued its order the following day making clear that the Washington Constitution protected Williams against the conditions of confinement the state imposed upon him.
The experience reinforced the value of experiential education, particularly when it comes to serving indigent clients with few avenues available through which to seek justice.
“If you’re going to engage in this kind of work,” Vial said, “there may be disappointments — but don’t settle for them. Get scrappy and get creative, because we were able to change the law with this case. And that was really exciting.”