Project on Wrongful Convictions Launched

BY ADINA LEVINE

The Harvard Project on Wrongful Convictions was launched this semester to exonerate people wrongfully convicted and to advocate reform in the criminal justice system.

“The advent of DNA and the subsequent exoneration of over 150 people nationwide has really focused attention on general procedural problems in the criminal justice system, and provided an opportunity for reform,” commented Ben Maxymuk, Co-Chair of the Project. “People [can no longer] hide their heads in the sand and deny those problems… in the face of these DNA exonerations. That’s why this is a particularly ripe time for reform, when not only traditional liberal critics, but many prosecutors and conservatives have realized that the system has serious problems.”

The Harvard Project on Wrongful Convictions (HPWC) will work closely with the New England Innocence Project (NEIP), run out of the Boston firm Goodwin Proctor. Students will work mostly in the investigative stages of its activities, in identifying which cases are likely to succeed. NEIP receives its potential cases from letters from prisoners, and then assign these cases to students from various local law schools, including BU and BC, to research whether a potential case exists.

“Students are assigned a case and investigate it by contacting the original attorneys, acquiring the case file, determining if testable evidence still exists,” Maxymuk said.

“Once the student has assembled the facts of a case, they analyze the trial transcript and other evidence and write a memo summarizing the case and making a recommendation as to whether NEIP should take the case. NEIP then decides whether to take the case,” and, if so, assigns it to a lawyer.

The student will then work with the lawyer in the proceeding case, although the crux of the student work will be at the investigative stage. “Our dual goals are to work to identify and exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes and, more generally, to advocate reforms in the criminal justice system to enhance both the truth-finding and liberty-protecting functions of that system,” explained Maxymuk.

“Additional goals include raising awareness on campus of problems in the criminal justice system, particularly those which lead to wrongful convictions, and providing opportunities for students to learn practical, ‘real world’ skills like investigation, interviewing, record retrieval and transcript analysis that are mostly neglected in HLS’s abstract, appellate case based curriculum.”

Started by Maxymuk, as well as Dana Mulhauser and Alex Abdo, the Harvard Project on Wrongful Convictions (HPWC) is under the supervision of Charles Ogletree as well as Jennifer Chunias, Climenko/Thayer Lecturer at Law who has been the project director for the New England Innocence Project for years. There are approximately 50 students involved in the HPWC right now, and Maxymuk hopes to eventually be able to get clinical credit for its activities.

“We are optimistic that students next year will have the option of signing up for clinical credits for their work with NEIP, tying those credits to various related classes,” asserted Maxymuk. “Ultimately, we would like to establish an ongoing clinical program.”

The advocacy, research, and awareness portions of the program have already begun with an introductory meeting for students interested in policy/advocacy work. 11 students have already been trained to work with the NEIP.

“Advocacy includes working for reforms in the criminal justice system, based on the causes of wrongful convictions such as faulty eyewitness identifications, false confessions, unreliable ‘jailhouse snitch’ testimony, and shoddy crime lab work,” explained Maxymuk. “In addition, we are hoping to raise awareness on campus through a series of panels next year addressing issues like police line up procedure, the problem of false confessions, and the oversight of crime labs. We also hope to bring some exonerees from Massachusetts to campus to tell their stories.”

However, Maxymuk says that DNA exonerations are only the beginning of needed reforms in the justice system.

“Our casework will focus on DNA cases, but this is likely only the tip of the iceberg in terms of wrongful convictions,” Maxymuk observed. “Almost all exonerations are in convictions for rapes or rape-murders. Is this because those are the only cases where wrongful convictions occur? Of course not; it’s because only in those cases, where there is biological evidence, can wrongful convictions be proven via DNA. The same problems with snitch testimony, mistaken identifications, etc. are present in robbery or assault or straight murder cases, but without DNA it is much harder to prove. That is one reason we need to focus not only on exonerations but on broader reforms to the system that will help prevent wrongful convictions across the board.”

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