New Thinking About Crime and Punishment
Guilty until proven innocent
A new student project could save the lives of the wrongfully convicted.
Brandon Moon was a 25-year-old college student at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1988 when he was convicted of rape and sentenced to 75 years in prison. Last December, after 16 years behind bars, he was released following conclusive DNA testing that proved his innocence. A few days later, Jennifer Millstone '05 received a gift from Moon--an angel pin that he'd made in prison--to thank her for helping to set him free.
"When I heard he was exonerated, it was one of the happiest days of my life," said Millstone, who worked on Moon's case as an intern at the Innocence Project in New York City last summer. Now a new group on campus will make it easier for other students to help inmates like Moon. This spring 2Ls Benjamin Maxymuk, Dana Mulhauser and Alexander Abdo launched the Harvard Project on Wrongful Convictions.
Moon is one of 158 individuals nationwide whose convictions have been overturned through DNA evidence since 1989, says Maxymuk, who was inspired to launch the project after a campus visit last year by Barry Scheck, the criminal defense attorney best known for his DNA work for the O.J. Simpson legal defense team. Scheck, along with attorney Peter Neufeld, has been pioneering the use of DNA evidence since 1988. Together, they established the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City in 1992, as a nonprofit legal clinic focused on cases where post-conviction DNA testing might yield conclusive proof of innocence. The clinic has since helped to exonerate dozens of wrongfully convicted individuals and sparked the creation of more than 30 Innocence Projects based in law firms and law schools across the country.
"[Wrongful conviction] is not a new issue," said Maxymuk. "The difference now is DNA. Before, people didn't want to believe that eyewitness testimony isn't always reliable. But it turns out, it's one of the least reliable types of evidence. People have started to listen and look at reforms because DNA is nearly irrefutable. People can't turn away from it."
Moon's exoneration was the second one Millstone had helped to bring about through her summer internship, and the experience left her wanting to do more.
Last fall she arranged to work 10 hours a week for the New England Innocence Project in Boston, whose network of attorneys in several local law firms has been directly involved in the exonerations of five New England men since its founding in 2000.
Millstone is one of several law students from local schools who have worked with NEIP on the dozens of requests for post-conviction case reviews that come in every year. She was able to get two of her professors in criminal law courses to grant clinical credits for her time at NEIP. More than 40 students have joined the HLS project, and 11 have had training for case review work, according to Jennifer Chunias, who taught the First Year Lawyering course at HLS and has served as project director at the NEIP since 2003.
"Each student is responsible for conducting both the investigative review and the analysis of the legal issues that were presented at trial and on appeal," said Chunias, who was Millstone's supervisor and will serve as the new group's trainer and adviser as students comb through trial transcripts and court files. "It's a very interesting intellectual exercise because all the work we do is post-conviction. The students are charged with unpacking each case. In a way, we're asking them to take away the conviction and say, 'If there was biological evidence here and if it was tested, would it be probative of innocence?' If so, then we should pursue it."
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