By Dave Montgomery
AUSTIN, TexasÂ â€” For years,Â James WoodardÂ wrote letter after letter from his prison cell, hoping to convince anyone willing to listen that he was innocent.
Most of his pleas were ignored, but some weren’t. Among those who took an interest wasÂ Alexis Hoff, a student atÂ Texas Wesleyan School of LawÂ inÂ Fort Worth.
In 2007, Hoff, nowÂ Alexis Hoff Allen, was a member of theÂ Wesleyan Innocence Project, composed of law student volunteers who spend hours of their own time investigating possible wrongful convictions.
Working with theÂ Dallas CountyÂ public defender’s office and district attorney’s office, the 25-year-old student pored over court records, transcripts and other documents in an exhaustive re-examination of the case. Allen’s review ultimately helped lead to DNA testing that cleared Woodard in the 1981 slaying of his girlfriend.
“She was a godsend for me,” said Woodard, who walked out of prison in 2008 after spending 27 years behind bars and now lives inÂ Dallas. “I absolutely love her.”
Although their efforts don’t always yield success stories like Woodard’s, innocence projects on university campuses have become a powerful force in the criminal justice system. The work of student volunteers has figured heavily in many of the 42 exonerations inÂ TexasÂ â€” the most in the nation â€” and helped clearÂ Tim ColeÂ ofÂ Fort Worth, who died in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.
“They are extremely essential,” said attorneyÂ Michelle MooreÂ of theÂ Dallas CountyÂ public defender’s office, who credits Wesleyan law students for assisting in many of the DNA-based reversals inÂ Dallas County. “They’ve been very instrumental from the start.”
Typically guided by professional advisers, students plow through old court records and police files, interview witnesses and prisoners, and sometimes spend days on the road looking for inconsistencies and evidence that might suggest a wrongful conviction. It’s shoe-leather detective work that often takes students through cold cases that perhaps all the but the inmate have long since forgotten
Two students at theÂ Innocence Project of Texas, founded byÂ AmarilloÂ attorneyÂ Jeff BlackburnÂ and based atÂ Texas Tech UniversityÂ inÂ Lubbock, conducted much of the preliminary work that contributed to Cole’s posthumous exoneration by aÂ Travis CountyÂ judge.
The group began pursuing the case after receiving a letter from the real assailant,Â Jerry Wayne Johnson, who was in prison on three rape convictions and later confessed to the rape for which Cole had been convicted.
The two students,Â Sarah HegiÂ andÂ Nick Vilbas, who have since graduated, interviewed Johnson, searched records and made frequent trips to theÂ Police Departmentand prosecutors’ offices to dig up evidence. Among their discoveries was a color Polaroid photograph that had been used to identify Cole; photos of other suspects were black and white, thus making Cole more prominent.
“The students played an integral part in clearing Tim’s name,” said Cole’s brother,Â Cory Session, who is now policy director for theÂ Innocence Project of Texas. “If it hadn’t been for those students at theÂ Texas TechÂ law clinic, we wouldn’t have come to this historic day.”
Another high-profile case is that ofÂ TexasÂ death row prisonerÂ Hank Skinner, who was convicted of capital murder for killing his live-in girlfriend and her two mentally impaired sons in 1995. The case received national attention after students from theÂ Medill Innocence ProjectÂ atÂ Northwestern UniversityÂ inÂ IllinoisÂ began looking into the conviction and interviewed a star witness who later recanted her testimony.Â The U.S. Supreme CourtÂ recently agreed to hear Skinner’s petition to obtain DNA evidence that he says will prove his innocence.
The Medill Innocence Project, founded 11 years ago, is one of five original innocence projects in the country, DirectorÂ David ProtessÂ said. Now, he says, there are more than 60 nationwide.
Widening public concern over wrongful convictions inÂ TexasÂ has spurred growing student involvement in campus innocence projects. Two operate atÂ Texas Wesleyan University: theÂ Wesleyan Innocence ProjectÂ at the downtown law school and theÂ Wesleyan Justice Project, composed largely of undergraduate students at the main campus in eastÂ Fort Worth. Innocence projects at the state’s four public law schools â€” theÂ University of Houston, theÂ University of Texas,Â Texas Southern UniversityÂ andÂ Texas TechÂ â€” are subsidized by the state, each receivingÂ $100,000Â a year.
Students at other campuses are also getting involved. More than 75 students turned out for a daylong innocence seminar at theÂ University of Texas at Dallas.
“Most of these students have never read a trial transcript or a police report,” saidÂ Anthony Champagne, professor of political science and director of pre-law at UT-Dallas. “The amazing thing is that these students turned out on a Saturday and stayed there all day long. It was pretty extraordinary.”
The apparent effectiveness of the university projects will likely prompt a state advisory panel to back away from recommending the creation of a state innocence commission similar to those operating inÂ California,Â Connecticut,Â Illinois,Â North Carolina,Â PennsylvaniaÂ andÂ Wisconsin.
Named after Cole, who received a posthumous pardon from Gov.Â Rick PerryÂ earlier this year, the state advisory panel is charged with recommending criminal justice improvements to curtail wrongful convictions inÂ Texas. At their last meeting, members leaned against the creation of a state innocence commission, largely because of the work being done through university innocence projects, and discussed tightening coordination among them.
The two projects atÂ Texas Wesleyan, a 120-year-old university affiliated with theÂ United Methodist Church, have gained increasing recognition within criminal justice circles and have been involved in hundreds of cases over the past five years.
The law school’sÂ Wesleyan Innocence Project, started in 2005, works with theÂ DallasÂ public defender’s office, which makes many of the case assignments to the Wesleyan law students. The undergrads initially worked with the law students but branched into the separateÂ Wesleyan Justice ProjectÂ about two years ago.
Wesleyan officials say that keeping the two groups separate fits the differing educational needs of law students and undergraduates. More than 130 students handle cases through the law school program.Â The Wesleyan Justice ProjectÂ has 30 to 35 participants, including undergrads as well as alumni and other interested community members. One is a nurse who examines medical reports as part of the research. Students in the undergrad group work closely with the innocence project atÂ Texas Tech.
The two Wesleyan groups have an identical goal: making sure that inmates aren’t behind bars when they shouldn’t be.Â Taylor Anderson, president of theÂ Wesleyan Innocence Project, says the experience can be rewarding and eye-opening.
“You come into this law business, you think that everything runs perfect,” said the 24-year-old law student. “You learn that everything is very imperfect.”
Anderson said he was hooked after attending a meeting in which an exonerated former prisoner told of his ordeal.
“I learned this is something I wanted to do, something I wanted to be involved in,” he said. Now, much of his daily reading â€” along with his studies â€” includes stacks of letters from inmates, who routinely reach out to innocence projects in the hope of finding a sympathetic ally.
Some of the letters are brief requests for applications; others can be page after page of typewritten pleadings. While many of the claims are baseless, Anderson says he scours each one to see whether there may have been a legitimate witness who wasn’t called or evidence that didn’t make it into trial.
Alexis Hoff Allen, who has graduated from the Wesleyan law school and now works in theÂ DallasÂ city attorney’s office, said she became involved in Woodard’s case after the Conviction Integrity Unit in theÂ DallasÂ district attorney’s office felt that it merited further review.
Allen first read the trial transcript and then dug through additional records. Working with assistant public defenderÂ Michelle MooreÂ inÂ Dallas, she also interviewed Woodard after he was returned toÂ DallasÂ on a bench warrant.
“I did a preliminary review of the case and recommended that it should be one of the cases that was tested” through DNA, Allen said. The DNA testing proved that Woodard did not commit the murder, resulting in his release inÂ April 2008.
“To help know I changed someone’s life for the better in a tremendous way is a pretty good feeling,” Allen said.
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