Gaining valuable experience — Six students in the SIU School of Law are involved in legal research through the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, whose work is to not only assist wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence, but also reform the state’s criminal justice system. The unpaid externships began last semester. Participating this semester are, from left: Christine Hummert, Heather Dragoo, Jennifer Donnelly, Amanda Reed, Angela Rollins, and Nicole LaForte. Donnelly and Reed are third-year students; Hummert, Dragoo, Rollins, and LaForte are in their second year of law school. With the students are, from left, Professor William A. Schroeder and Assistant Professor Christopher W. Behan. Photo by Chelsea Sturgeon. (courtesy)

Students in the Southern Illinois University School of Law are involved in legal research that could ultimately mean freedom for wrongfully convicted prisoners.

Students Jennifer Donnelly and Angela Rollins last fall began assisting the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, an organization whose work is to not only assist wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence, but also aims to reform the state's criminal justice system. Four additional students are involved with the program through unpaid externships this semester

Prior to taking a case, the project needs "strong evidence" that inmates are actually innocent - such as bad eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, ineffective counsel, unreliable forensic evidence and misconduct by prosecutors and police - and once a case is taken, the services are free. The project assists attorneys who represent convicted inmates in appellate cases where there is a strong chance the inmate is innocent, and concentrates on non-death penalty cases that carry long sentences.

Donnelly, a third-year law student from Chillicothe, near Peoria, said the externship opens up the realization that "there are real situations where there are innocent people out there serving time for crimes that they didn't do."

"That is a big issue in the criminal justice system today which I think a lot of people don't understand really happens - people can falsely confess to something they didn't do, or an eyewitness can falsely identify someone who wasn't even there," she said.

Under the direction of Professor William A. Schroeder and Assistant Professor Christopher W. Behan, the students worked last semester on case research that involves the first-degree murder, armed robbery, and attempted aggravated kidnapping conviction of Thomas McMillen in the June 1989 death of 18-year-old Melissa Koontz. The woman's body was found in a cornfield west of Springfield after she disappeared while on her way home from a grocery store where she worked. McMillen is one of five people convicted in connection with Koontz' slaying and is serving a life sentence.

The innocence project is reviewing the evidence and seeking post-conviction advanced forensic DNA testing for McMillen, who maintains his innocence.

The project's previous work has resulted in exonerations of three people, including Julie Rea Harper, a Lawrenceville woman initially convicted in 2002 of the October 1997 stabbing death of her 10-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick. Bill Clutter, the project's director of investigations, and innocence project students presented evidence to exonerate Harper and cast the focus on convicted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells.

In 2004, the Fifth District Appellate Court vacated Harper's conviction on procedural error and ordered a new trial. In July 2006, a Clinton County jury, which heard details of Sells' confession to killing Kirkpatrick, found Harper not guilty.

Those types of results with student participation are important in shaping a student's legal training, Behan said. Donnelly worked with the project while an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Behan and Schroeder both said it is important that the legal system is "clean." That does not happen when there are wrongful convictions.

"There's a very real human cost to miscarriages of justice," Behan said. "When you have somebody who is wrongfully convicted you take years and years and years away from them that can never be given back. The best we can do for these people who have been wrongfully convicted is to try to get them out so they can enjoy whatever years of their lives they have."

The innocence project is important both in Illinois and nationally, said Cynthia L. Fountaine, dean of the SIU School of Law. Those involved "are serving a crucial role in ensuring that justice is served in our criminal justice system by obtaining exonerations for those wrongfully convicted of crime," she said.

"I am delighted that our students have the opportunity to be involved with this project," Fountaine said.

"Many of them will work as criminal prosecutors or defense attorneys once they graduate, so this is an excellent opportunity to get practical experience working on criminal cases.  Working hands-on with real people who may have been wrongly convicted is more likely to leave a strong impression on them than reading about it in a text book would have. This type of experiential learning is critical to help us address the flaws in the system that lead to wrongful convictions so that they can be prevented in the future."

Schroeder, a former prosecutor, believes some wrongful convictions happen when the legal system focuses too much on process - such as whether suspects receive their Miranda Rights, and if searches are conducted pursuant to a proper warrant - rather than guilt or innocence.

Many wrongful convictions hinge on bad witness identifications, false confessions, and police concentrating solely on one suspect.   

"This work could not only exonerate wrongfully convicted persons, but could ultimately lead to police and prosecutors reopening old cases to track down the real criminals," he said. "Wrongful convictions do not just hurt the wrongfully convicted person: they hurt society because a wrongful conviction means the real bad guy is still on the street."

Students in the program have the opportunity to learn how to write legal motions and arguments, go into court, and interact with clients, Schroeder said.

Being involved in exonerating a wrongly convicted person will give students "a tremendous sense of accomplishment for rectifying a really grievous wrong," Schroeder said.

"To me, in some ways, that is the biggest selling point," he said.

The University of Illinois at Springfield houses the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project through its Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies.

Last fall, the Project received a Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that includes support for the collaborative efforts with the SIU School of Law and University of Illinois College of Law. Experienced appellate attorney John Hanlon began as the program's legal director on Feb. 1. He is overseeing the case work of students and educating them in the field of wrongful convictions. The grant supports the screening of cases received by the Project where DNA testing might prove guilt or innocence. And the grant defrays costs of post-conviction DNA tests.

Rollins, and law school classmates Heather Dragoo, Amanda Reed, Christine Hummert, and Nicole LaForte are now evaluating cases referred to the Project to see whether the cases qualify under the Bloodworth grant, Behan said.

Reed, who is from St. Louis, is in her third year at the law school. Rollins, who is from Royalton; Hummert, who is from Belleville; LaForte, who is from Indianapolis, Ind.; and Dragoo, who is from Evansville, Ind., are all second-year students in the law school.

Larry Golden, the project director, said the legal capability that both law schools possess is an important component. The project now has reviewed about 40 case files with inmate requests from downstate Illinois that may be resolved through DNA tests, he said. Developing supporting materials, such as trial transcripts, takes time, he said.

The focus is on non-death penalty cases, Golden said.

The program's benefit can be a "life-changer," and not just for exonerated inmates, but also for the students involved, several of whom Golden expects will remain with their cases after they graduate.

Golden said he anticipates a long-term relationship with the law school. Innocence projects without direct legal capability in other states may also see the benefit of collaborating with law schools, he said.

"We are absolutely delighted we can establish this," Golden said. "What we are putting together is a model I think is going to eventually gain some national attention."

Dragoo is beginning her first semester with the project. Dragoo said she knew the national Innocence Project in New York was a "great project," and she "jumped at the chance" when the opportunity arose to work with a similar project in Illinois.

"Such projects provide a valuable service to society, and it's nice that lawyers are able to help right such wrongs," Dragoo said. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Ball State University, and a Master of Public Administration and Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, both from the University of Southern Indiana.

She came to law school with an interest in biotechnology, the field responsible for many of the techniques used in DNA testing.

She said the externship will help her law career because it will allow her to learn about the criminal justice system while also learning how to analyze, investigate and compile case files, she said.

Donnelly has done a lot of research into McMillen's case, which she started on when she was an undergraduate student. Four years later, "we are closer, but we still have a long ways to go," said Donnelly, who is looking for issues not argued at McMillen's trial but which could be raised on appeal.

"It's definitely helping me form good arguments that may seem small and minute, but could really be a huge deal and be the difference between guilt and innocence," she said.

Donnelly said she is very passionate about the project, and her "dream job" is to work with an innocence project when she graduates. She said she would like to remain involved in this case, even on a pro bono basis. The work provides valuable lessons for law school students, she said.

"I hope they really have a better understanding the ramifications of being falsely convicted have on somebody and their families for their entire life, and that we, as young, almost attorneys, can really play a large role in fixing those wrongs," Donnelly said.

"It's priceless to know that you might have a hand in setting someone free who should have never been in prison in the first place." Behan echoes Donnelly's thoughts.

"There's an inspirational aspect of working with this that I believe will be good for the students; to feel that they are on the side of social justice," Behan said. "It's also good to see how the wheels of justice can grind somebody down to powder. As they go through the files it's easy to see where prosecutors might have over-reached or where defense attorneys didn't do enough - which will give them hopefully the background not to make the same mistake themselves, whether they are prosecutors or defense attorneys."

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