Thanks to Professor Jackie McMurtrie and some enterprising UW law students, an innocent man spent this past Christmas with his family, rather than in a prison cell. Since 1997, when McMurtrie established the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic at the UW School of Law, she and her students have helped exonerate 13 wrongfully convicted people.
Before coming to the UW, you worked as a public defender. How was that different from the work you’re doing now with the Innocence Project?
As a public defender, your job is to be the best advocate possible for your client, whether that person is guilty or not guilty or innocent. And most of your clients are going to be guilty. That’s just the nature of the job. Whereas with the Innocence Project Clinic, we start with the criterion that a person has to in fact say he or she is innocent in order for us to even look at the case. And by innocent, we mean that the person didn’t have any involvement with the crime. So we won’t take cases where the person says, ‘It was self-defense,’ or rape cases where they say it was consent, or ‘I was at the scene of the crime, and I didn’t do everything they said I did, so it’s Murder Two, not Murder One.’ We won’t examine those kinds of cases.
Was there a particular case that piqued your interest in this kind of work?
In my work as a public defender, I didn’t really know about the extent of wrongful convictions. But I represented a client on a murder charge that we were able to get dismissed, because we found bus tickets and phone records that proved he was in a different state when the murder occurred. It just showed me how easy it would have been not to do that investigative work and have him be convicted.
Is it true that you get something like 50 petitions a month—people asking for your assistance?
Yes, and we can only look at a limited number of those requests. And then we take an even more limited number of cases and represent those people as clients. Because my students and I might spend a whole academic year looking at a case, looking at the police report, reading over the trial transcript, interviewing witnesses, and ultimately decide that there’s nothing that we can do for that person, because of the legal obstacles that are present to coming back and challenging a conviction.
It must be so inspiring for these students to help free an innocent person.
This year was great because we had a client we were able to get out of prison on Christmas Eve, who returned home to his family on Christmas Day. It doesn’t get more Capra-esque than that. But those moments are rare and far between, and it’s a very eye-opening experience for my students to see how the system works or does not work, the errors that the system makes and the difficulties in remedying those mistakes.
Have students done some really creative thinking that’s led to breakthroughs in any of your cases?
In the case I just mentioned, one of my students, Boris Reznikov, [‘08], was the person who went and uncovered the evidence that our client was actually in Los Angeles at or around the time that the robbery had taken place in Tacoma. Now that took persistence, but it wasn’t rocket science. You asked about creative thinking, but oftentimes it’s just a matter of doing what needs to be done initially and keeping an open mind about all kinds of possibilities, including the one that your client is innocent.