Innocence Project Renews at Notre Dame Law School

The Innocence Project has returned to Notre Dame Law School. After several years of inactivity, a group of students has reactivated the Innocence Project as a student organization.

The official mission of the Innocence Project, which began at Cardozo School of Law in 1992, is to work toward exonerating the number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. The organization says the project primarily focuses on the use of DNA evidence to conclusively establish the innocence of those it seeks to release.

“The NDLS Innocence Project will afford law students a forum to discuss reforming the criminal justice system responsible for wrongful convictions,” said Professor Jimmy Gurulé, a former federal and state prosecutor, who is the group’s faculty advisor. “Notre Dame students may also have an opportunity to provide legal work on wrongful conviction cases.”

The club at Notre Dame Law School will focus on wrongful conviction education and awareness, while also creating opportunities for students to work on post-conviction, pro-bono cases with licensed attorneys, Gurulé said.

Newly elected club president Tia B. Paulette, 2L, said she received positive responses from both the student body and the NDLS faculty.

“With the rising number of exonerations and innocents pleading guilty, organizations like this are extremely crucial,” Paulette said. “Statistics show that more wrongful convictions are actually discovered as more resources become available. I’m enthusiastic at the response we’ve received from the student body. There’s a lot of energy and passion surrounding this cause here at the law school.”

The National Registry of Exonerations, a non-government project sponsored by law schools, reported 1,913 exonerations in the United States, since 1989. That is an average of 70 per year, or one person every five days.

Even conservative estimates on wrongful conviction rates are troubling, Paulette said. She said the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia estimated the wrongful conviction rate at 0.027 percent. The International Center for Prison Studies says 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Sixty thousand individuals are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in U.S. prisons, using Scalia’s estimate. This means each of them will spend, on average, 8.8 years of their life wrongfully incarcerated.

“Even one wrongfully-spent day in prison is too long,” Paulette said. “We are excited to be educators, advocates, and a group of mindful students that will go out into the world and impact the legal field.”