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Advocate staff file photo by Richard Alan Hannon -- The LSU Law Center

The LSU Law Center has received a grant to establish a Wrongful Conviction Clinic at the school, allowing law students to review cases of people with claims of innocence.

LSU Law, partnering with the Innocence Project New Orleans, received a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to establish a Wrongful Conviction Clinic at the university. This two-year grant will allow them to review cases of incarcerated people who say they have been wrongfully convicted.

It is the first clinic of its kind at a Louisiana law school, according to a press release from LSU. Students will examine cases to identify those that may benefit from DNA testing and potentially file post-conviction petitions for these defendants later down the line.

Frank Neuner Jr., managing partner at NeunerPate and chair of IPNO's board of directors, said that when Jee Park, director of IPNO, learned about the DOJ grants available to state-supported schools, she asked him to open doors at LSU.  

LSU was "a natural fit," he said. The grant will give students practical experience from IPNO lawyers and equip IPNO with further resources to continue their mission. 

LSU already has a law clinic that gives students experience in areas ranging from juvenile defense to immigration. Park and her legal director, Richard Davis, will instruct students at the newly established Wrongful Conviction Clinic beginning Fall 2021. 

“As Louisiana continues to seek solutions to address its mass incarceration problem, IPNO is thrilled to partner with LSU Law and its outstanding clinical program to work to free innocent men and women from prisons,” Park said.

Since 2001, IPNO has freed or exonerated 36 innocent people who served more than 873 combined years in prison in both Louisiana and Mississippi, according to their website

Park said that the grant is limited to DNA cases. Students will learn about what can lead to wrongful convictions, such as eyewitness misidentification. Fifteen out of 16 DNA exonerations in Louisiana have involved mistaken eyewitness identifications, the IPNO website says.

"The way our memory actually works is not the way people think it does work," she said. "We don’t record events like a video recording. Memory is a constructive process."

Factors like the race of the victim or perpetrator, the clothing the perpetrator was wearing at the time and whether a weapon was involved all impact someone's memory of an incident.

Immediate recollections to authorities can also be unintentionally contaminated. An officer could ask leading questions or people could be interviewed in a group, Park said. 

"All these things lead to misidentification," she said. "I wish our memories were more robust."

She then likened identifying a perpetrator in a lineup to a multiple choice test, where a whole host of details could influence whether one person is chosen over someone else. 

One of IPNO's recent exonerations is Archie Williams, a man who spent 36 years behind bars after a conviction based almost solely on the victim's positive identification of him in a photo lineup. He was released in 2019 after fingerprint testing revealed another man to be the culprit in the rape and stabbing of a Baton Rouge woman. His story gained national attention after he auditioned for and became a finalist in "America's Got Talent."

The spring semester will be devoted to preparing for the upcoming year, narrowing down cases and sending out public records requests, Park said. In the fall, students will be educated in the science and law behind issues that lead to wrongful conviction and review IPNO cases that illustrate those problems in practice.

Students will be limited to cases where evidence was collected. Some files that are decades old may be more challenging if evidence has been destroyed in periodic cleanings of courthouses and criminal labs, or not stored properly. The grant will later fund DNA experts and DNA testing. 

Lee Ann Wheelis, the interim LSU Law dean, said the clinic will provide "invaluable real-world experience working on incredibly meaningful criminal legal cases.”

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