Guilty until proven innocent, continued

Five HLS students have begun receiving cases for review, which they will work on in addition to their full-time summer jobs. Chunias and Maxymuk expect as many as another 10 students per semester to review NEIP cases.

Jennifer Millstone
Jennifer Millstone, wearing the angel pin Brandon Moon made to thank her for helping to set him free

While Maxymuk has already had a taste of case review through his job last summer at the Office of Capital Defense Counsel in Jackson, Miss., he said for many Harvard Law students, this will be the first opportunity to "see what a trial transcript looks like, and they're definitely going to see the effect of these cases on real people."

Using Millstone's experience as a model, the group is arranging for students to earn clinical credits for NEIP casework. In fact, Millstone has been instrumental in helping structure the new group, which plans to offer a seminar as well as panel discussions, guest lectures, policy papers and even films to boost awareness on campus.

"I was alone [at Harvard] on this project. I was just feeling my way," said Millstone. "I would have loved to talk about my cases with other students."

Chunias will hold a workshop for students doing case review. Professor Charles Ogletree '78, the project's faculty adviser, has a related course in the works.

"The [Harvard Project on Wrongful Convictions] is one of the most exciting things I've ever seen happen at Harvard Law School in my 30 years of association with the school, as a student and as a faculty member," said Ogletree.

The exonerations, in recent years, of 13 death-row inmates in Illinois, he said, have been deeply motivating to HLS students: "The magnitude of death being a crapshoot or a flip of the coin--to have such errors in the criminal justice system--is frightening. The fact that Harvard Law students see this as a mission that they will pursue is great for the system, great for the law school and, most important, may mean the difference between life and death for people who are facing sanctions when they are completely innocent."

Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York City, said the Harvard project will give HLS students the "unprecedented opportunity to walk a wrongfully convicted man or woman out of prison and into freedom. It doesn't matter whether, ultimately, you become a corporate lawyer, judge or advocate for criminal justice. That experience will be life-changing."

While exonerations are their main focus, the HLS students will also advocate for reforms in the criminal justice system. Chunias said that includes pushing for improved standards for state crime labs, and for legislation that would guarantee the preservation of DNA evidence and make it easier for defendants to have access to it for post-conviction testing. (Massachusetts has yet to pass such a law.) Students will also lobby for better training protocols for police and prosecutors to lessen the chances that convictions can be based on mistaken eyewitness identifications (an issue in Brandon Moon's case).

"If there is DNA evidence clearing someone, that means the ID was bad and it takes the reasonable doubt out of reasonable doubt," said Mulhauser, who worked last summer for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

"There's a strong current in society that wants to believe the justice system doesn't make mistakes," added Maxymuk. "We want to make sure there's some effort to fix the broken processes that are churning out all these mistakes, not to mention stealing decades from people's lives."

Margie Kelley is a freelance writer living in Attleboro, Mass.

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See also New Program to Focus on Race and Justice

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