Third-year law student Lenora Popken knew she had found her calling even before the evening of April 2 when Andy Royer met her on the steps of the Kosciusko County Jail as a free man after 16 years in prison.
“I remember walking back to the spectators’ seats after I had examined my first direct witness and won an evidentiary objection in Andy’s hearing,” she said. “Professor Gurulé greeted me there, shook my hand, and said ‘great job counselor.’ And in that moment, I knew that this work is what God has intended me to pursue for the rest of my life.”
As participants in Notre Dame Law School’s Wrongful Conviction Externship, Popken and fellow third-year law student Paula Ortiz-Cardona conducted a number of key direct and cross exams in the post-conviction hearing that the Exoneration Project had helped secure for Royer, a mentally disabled man convicted in the 2002 strangulation death of an elderly woman in his Elkhart, Indiana, apartment building. Royer has said for years that police exploited his disability to coerce a false confession.
The South Bend Tribune also covered this story.
Notre Dame Law students have been assisting the Exoneration Project with Royer’s case since 2017. At the conclusion of the hearing earlier this month, the Kosciusko Superior Court judge granted Royer’s petition for a new trial and ordered him released.
“I cannot put into words the depth of the impact this experience has had on my professional goals as well as my personal perspective,” Popken said. “Having the privilege of fighting for Andy, winning evidentiary objections, getting that key piece of evidence in, catching a crucial state’s witness in a lie, brainstorming closing arguments, and participating in all aspects of the effort to secure his release is something I will never forget.”
Ortiz-Cardona said, “The best part about the experience of working that hearing was witnessing the amount of teamwork that went into it. So many of the Exoneration Project students showed up every day to watch the hearing, research case law, and pass notes to us when they believed the prosecutor cited a case that had no authority or to point out inconsistent testimony. It was truly a team effort.”
This is the second academic year that the Wrongful Conviction Externship has been offered as an experiential learning opportunity for students at Notre Dame Law School. Externship students advise and represent clients believed to have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, all under the supervision of Notre Dame Law Professor Jimmy Gurulé, a former federal and state prosecutor, and Adjunct Professor Elliot Slosar, a staff attorney with the Chicago-based Exoneration Project.
Last year, externship students Molly Campbell ’19 J.D. and Alyssa Slaimen ’19 J.D. — both of whom also worked on the Royer case — helped overturn the murder conviction of Donald Whalen, who had served more than 27 years in an Illinois prison.
By the time Royer won his freedom in Indiana, Ortiz-Cardona had been working on his behalf for three years. Her first year of law school was spent investigating the case. “We spoke with witnesses, cops, and even people we believed to be alternate suspects,” she said. In her second year of law school, she helped draft Royer’s 150-page post-conviction relief petition, which outlined newly discovered evidence and alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct. In her third year, she and Popken worked together on the evidentiary hearing. “For that,” Ortiz-Cardona said, “I focused on the latent print evidence, which was challenging. I had no idea how latent print evidence analysis worked prior to this case. There was a huge learning curve.”
Now, a week before final exams, she is still working on additional motions for the Royer case, editing a post-conviction relief petition that will soon be filed for another one of the Exoneration Project’s clients, and helping her teammates review new cases and deciding which three new clients the Notre Dame team will take on in the fall.
“Andy’s story is more than just a story,” she said. “It is the reality for so many innocent people trapped in the criminal justice system. Now more than ever, I encourage other law students to seek out innocence cases.”
Ortiz-Cardona knows this experience will always connect her with Andy and credits her work on the case for her desire to continue working in this area of the law. “There is more work that needs to be done,” she said. “As attorneys, we are the only ones who can help.”
In addition to the Wrongful Conviction Externship, dozens of students are active with the Notre Dame Exoneration Project, a student-run organization that hosts speakers and offers students an opportunity to volunteer on reviewing new cases. The Wrongful Conviction Externship grew out of the ND Exoneration Project. Faculty approved the externship, which enables students to earn academic credit, after seeing the enthusiastic and valuable work that ND Exoneration Project members had performed for their clients as volunteers.