Each semester, students from Notre Dame Law School and undergraduates join the Exoneration Justice Clinic to assist with the important work of freeing wrongfully convicted clients.
“The students enrolled in the Exoneration Justice Clinic are bright, talented, passionate, and tireless workers on behalf of our clients,” said Jimmy Gurulé, Notre Dame Law professor and faculty director of the clinic. “The law students' response has been overwhelming. This semester we had 23 law student volunteers, in addition to twelve students enrolled in the clinic for credit. Undergraduate students are also participating in the clinic and making an invaluable contribution to our mission.”
Second-year law student Ian McKay said his work at the Exoneration Justice Clinic is the most important thing he has done at Notre Dame.
“When you get on a video call with a client and see them on that screen you realize that this is not just some case — with facts and a procedural history — it's someone's life,” McKay said. “Someone who grew up with hopes and dreams. Someone who had those hopes stripped away from them. Someone who was convicted and shuffled away into a concrete box and forgotten. But we can do something to help. Oftentimes we are our client's last chance at justice, so the stakes are incredibly high.”
McKay would like to be a prosecutor after he graduates from Notre Dame Law School.
“Prosecutors have tremendous power and discretion in our criminal justice system. An unethical prosecutor can destroy countless lives. I know that I will carry my experiences at the clinic wherever I go, but especially if I pursue a career as a prosecutor,” he said. “We need more lawyers who understand the flaws in our criminal justice system and are doing their part to fix the injustices.”
Mark Simonitis, a third-year law student, said a presentation about the clinic’s first exoneree Andrew Royer during his 1L year was both moving and motivating. He applied as soon as he heard the clinic would be officially accepting students.
The work is satisfying on both a professional and personal level, Simonitis said.
“I get to do the work of a real lawyer, whether that's arguing before the court, drafting motions, or accompanying an investigator to look at crime scenes and speak to witnesses,” he said.
Notre Dame undergraduate Langley Allen said her work at the clinic gives her hope.
“There are so many systems founded on the oppression and discrimination of minority groups, so this work allows for some of the harsh consequences of such systems to be mitigated,” Allen said. “Change is a slow and challenging process, but this work gives me hope that one day enough people will be on the side of change and systems can begin to function in a more just and accountable way.”
Allen intends to pursue a law degree and work in criminal defense. Her time at the clinic has exposed her to many perspectives with regard to the criminal justice system — and, despite those different perspectives, many of them have the same goal: fixing a broken system.
McKay pointed to his journey from Los Angeles to South Bend before law school began as inspiration for his time at Notre Dame and the clinic.
“On the long drive from Los Angeles, I had a lot of time to think about what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. There was a car that kept passing me over the course of two days and on the back was a bumper sticker. The bumper sticker just said ‘Isaiah 1:16.’ I looked up that passage in the Bible and it read, ‘Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause,’" he said. “That became my mission statement for my time in law school and beyond. The Exoneration Justice Clinic is where I get to live out that mission every day that I am here at Notre Dame.”
For more information on the Exoneration Justice Clinic, visit exoneration.nd.edu.