What We're Doing
We have two distinct but related Innocence Project clinics at UVA Law. Each year, we select and accept 12 clinic students for a year-long clinic for academic credit. In addition, we have the Student Pro-Bono Clinic which is open to any law student who wishes to work on a case or project in exchange for pro bono hours, which every law student needs in order to graduate. All of these students investigate and litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Some of the cases have forensic evidence (usually DNA) that can be tested, but more are non-DNA cases, a choice made consciously to reflect the past reality that only approximately 10% of all cases involve DNA. In addition, both clinics often take on special projects related to wrongful convictions. Some highlights to follow:
- On January 12, 2018 Messiah Johnson was granted a conditional pardon by out-going Governor Terry McAuliffe "on the condition that he complete the Department of Corrections re-entry program prior to release and enter a three-year period of supervised release. The pardon is issued without prejudice to his absolute pardon petition or other judicial remedies." Messiah was officially released on April 25, 2018. We will continue to work with Messiah to earn him the full and unconditional pardon that he deserves; in the meantime, please consider donating to Messiah's GoFundMe campaign in order to help him buy basic necessities and defray medical expenses related to conditions that arose and worsened during his two-decade incarceration.
- Two articles by The Marshall Project address, respectively, eyewitness testimony and rules governing discovery, two important issues critical to our cases.
- Student Pro-Bono Clinic
The Student Pro-Bono Clinic, formerly known as the Virginia Innocence Project Student Group (VIPS), originally started with only 8 law students and has since grown to over 75 active members. Professor Brandon L. Garrett published an essay in the University of Richmond Law Review that describes a project launched by VIPS, in which students filed FOIA requests for the interrogation policies of every police department in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Click here to learn more about the Pro-Bono Clinic and the FOIA project mentioned above.
- Arsean Hicks
Click here to read about how the Clinic Helped Change State Law on Exculpatory Evidence as part of our ongoing efforts on behalf of one of our clients, Arsean Hicks. Additionally, Hicks has recently published a book which is now available on Amazon.
- Hair Microscopy
Spencer Hsu, an investigative journalist with The Washington Post has written extensively about yet another “junk science” that has resulted in wrongful convictions of countless men and women. In the early 1980s, FBI analysts began offering “expert” testimony in thousands of criminal cases all around the country. Essentially, these analysts testified almost exclusively for the government, and almost always claiming that the defendant’s hair was microscopically similar (and sometimes identical to) a hair recovered at the crime scene, thereby inculpating the defendant. Hair microscopy is defined as the microscopic comparison of the external characteristics of hair, and it has since been debunked as pseudo-science. As a result, efforts by the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) have led to an investigation into federal criminal cases affected by evidence based on "hair microscopy" and the related testimony of so-called expert witnesses. Spencer Hsu later discovered that the approximately 28 FBI agents who were first trained as hair microscopy experts, later trained between 500 and 1,000 state and regional laboratory agents as “experts.” After retiring from the FBI, one of these FBI microscopic hair comparison “experts” was hired part-time by the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences, and began offering similar now-debunked testimony on behalf of the Commonwealth. The wrongful convictions of two of our clients, Darnell Phillips and Emerson Stevens, rest strongly on the claimed similarities of hair linked to their respective investigations. The Virginia Department of Forensic Science has recently announced its intention to conduct an audit of all Virginia criminal cases involving microscopic hair comparison.