Notre Dame Law School’s Exoneration Justice Clinic is working to help train a new generation of lawyers who are committed to bringing about a more just criminal justice system and preventing wrongful convictions.
Since its origin as the Wrongful Conviction Externship in fall 2018 through its establishment as a full legal clinic in fall 2020, the Exoneration Justice Clinic has worked to train students on how to investigate and litigate wrongful conviction cases. Many of these students have chosen to build on their clinical training and experience by pursuing careers in the criminal justice system. These students show how the formative experiences provided by the Exoneration Justice Clinic have helped motivate and train them for careers in which they seek to pursue justice and prevent wrongful convictions, whether that be as wrongful conviction or innocence attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, or in other capacities.
“Notre Dame Law School prides itself in educating a ‘different kind of lawyer.’ The Exoneration Justice Clinic advances this important mission by affording law students the opportunity to use their legal knowledge and training to investigate and litigate wrongful conviction cases based on claims of actual innocence. Tragically, many of our clients have spent over 20 years in prison for a crime they did not commit,” says Professor Jimmy Gurulé, a former federal prosecutor and director of the Exoneration Justice Clinic.
Some Exoneration Justice Clinic alumni build on their experience at the clinic by joining other wrongful conviction organizations after graduation.
Jessa Webber ’22 J.D. was a student in the Exoneration Justice Clinic from 2021 to 2022. Webber recently joined the Western Michigan University-Cooley Innocence Project, where she represents wrongfully convicted individuals in Michigan. Part of Webber’s role is to help forge strong relationships with Michigan Conviction Integrity Units — divisions of prosecutor’s offices that work to prevent, identify, and remedy wrongful convictions — to identify and overturn wrongful convictions in Michigan. As Webber explains, “The EJC narrowed my broad focus (from criminal justice reform), and showed me what I truly want to do for the rest of my life.”
Similarly, Brandon Leinz ’20 J.D. was a student in the Wrongful Conviction Externship during his second and third years of law school and had the opportunity to work on several wrongful conviction cases, including the case of Andy Royer, who was ultimately exonerated in 2021 after serving over 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Upon graduation, Leinz received the Thomas L. Shaffer Fellowship from Notre Dame Law School and served as a legal fellow to the Arizona Justice Project, an organization that seeks justice for the innocent and unjustly incarcerated in Arizona. Leinz says the Wrongful Convictions Externship “gave me the passion, purpose, and direction that has guided my professional career ever since.” Following his fellowship, Brandon joined the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender in Phoenix, where he continues to provide zealous representation for criminal defendants and seeks to protect his clients from wrongful convictions. “Quite simply,” he says, “my participation in the organizations that would become the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic is the reason I work in criminal law. Full stop.”
Like Leinz, third-year law student Pirie Maher will be serving as a public defender after she graduates from Notre Dame Law School this May. Maher, who will join the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender in the fall, says, “Good lawyering also requires empathetic lawyering, which is another skill I learned at the EJC. I got to practice how to appropriately and effectively work in a field that inevitably deals with a lot of trauma. Being an empathetic lawyer means understanding when to slow down, put aside the legal goals for a moment, and acknowledge the other’s pain by sitting in their emotions with them. It is important to also remember that, as lawyers, we work with people not papers. I learned at the EJC to always remember that we represent clients and not DOC numbers. We represent a whole person. I will carry that forward with me.”
Other alumni of the Exoneration Justice Clinic have sought to bring about a more just criminal justice system by pursuing careers as prosecutors.
Gordon McCormack ’22 J.D. participated in the Exoneration Justice Clinic from 2021 to 2022. Now, McCormack works as an assistant district attorney in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston. As he states, “My two years at the EJC taught me that pursuing justice — my mission and responsibility as a prosecutor — includes curtailing injustice from inside the system. Andy Royer, Keith Cooper, and countless others spent years wrongfully incarcerated before getting their freedom restored, and their tragic stories started with prosecutors enabling shoddy investigations and officer misconduct. The casework at the EJC impressed upon me the importance of never taking my power and discretion for granted. Trying cases now, I’m remaining firmly aware I’m the first line of defense against a wrongful conviction.”
Each year, the Exoneration Justice Clinic welcomes students who want to develop their lawyering skills while also seeking to right the injustice caused by wrongful convictions. The clinic prides itself in offering these students a wide array of experiential learning opportunities. One of these opportunities is the ability to participate in thorough criminal investigations. As Leinz states, “I learned firsthand why you talk to everyone, leave no stone unturned, and run down all leads, no matter how low your chances of success may be” And as a prosecutor, McCormack notes, “Every piece of a case must be evaluated and vetted by the prosecutor presenting it, or it should not appear in a courtroom; that’s the only ethical way to do the job.”
The Exoneration Justice Clinic also provides students with hands-on litigation experience in wrongful conviction cases. From drafting petitions for post-conviction relief, to drafting motions, to arguing at hearings — all done under the supervision of the clinic’s staff attorneys — students learn the importance of zealous advocacy for the innocent. As Leinz explains, “I learned how to litigate post-conviction cases when you have no hope of getting fair, reasonable consideration of your claims from prosecutors. It’s a very different kind of process compared to semi-collaborative adjudication of cases I’ve experienced elsewhere, but it’s important because it forces you to hone your skills and teaches you how to operate when negotiations break down.”
Through these experiential opportunities, the Exoneration Justice Clinic hopes to continue to inspire and train more lawyers who are committed to fighting for justice, preventing wrongful convictions, and reforming the criminal justice system.
Jessa Webber ’22 J.D. recently discussed her exoneration work on Notre Dame Law School’s DEI Podcast.
Originally published by exoneration.nd.edu on March 27, 2023.at