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Nonprofit focusing on wrongful convictions moves to Law School

The move was prompted by growth of the nonprofit and an aim for better access to resources.

The Innocence Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides legal support to wrongly convicted felons, moved to the University of Minnesota Law School earlier this month. 

Both those from the University and the Innocence Project of Minnesota said they hope the move will encourage greater student involvement, support growth of the nonprofit and offer access to experts and professionals who could be helpful in cases.

According to Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota Sara Jones, the nonprofit made the move because of its growth.

Previously housed in Hamline University, the Innocence Project received a grant last year to hire a staff attorney and expand their reach to include North and South Dakota. Now located in second floor offices in Mondale Hall, Jones said the move will give the organization access to resources it would not have had otherwise.

“In addition to our geographic growth, we are looking for ways we can live our mission more fully, not only by representing clients in cases of actual innocence and working to improve the justice system through advocacy and education,” Jones said. “But we’re considering getting into research and partnerships to do some practical research as well.”

According to the National Registry of Exonerees, there have been 2,418 exonerations in the United States since 1989. According to the Innocence Project of Minnesota, the organization has successfully exonerated six men who spent a combined total of 84 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Laura Thomas, the director of law clinics at the University, said she thought the move would be mutually beneficial for the Innocence Project and law school students, providing them with easier opportunities for volunteering. She also said the organization offers students gratifying opportunities to do tangible good in the world, opportunities they may not receive post-graduation.

“The practical reality of student debt for our young lawyers is that many cannot afford to work for public interest organizations when they graduate,” Thomas said. “But to have exposure to an organization like the Innocence Project early in your legal training makes it more likely that someday, when you’re financially stable, you can support this organization.”

Liza Messinger, a student in the law school, is currently enrolled in the year-long clinic affiliated with the Innocence Project. Messinger said the work she’s done on cases has mirrored the work done in the podcast “Serial”: there is a lot of scrutinizing of evidence, re-interviewing witnesses, looking at forensic science and scouring records.

“It’s a pretty intense experience, but I don’t think there’s any better way to prepare yourself to be a good lawyer,” she said.

The work involved with overturning a case, according to Messinger, is not easy. Evidence already used in trial or the appeals cannot be used in working to overturn a conviction. In Minnesota, after an appeal is rejected, there are two years in which evidence must be gathered to file another post-conviction appeal. After that date, a higher bar of evidence is needed to be hit, Messinger said.

Though Messinger said it can feel like an overwhelming task to overturn a conviction, she remains positive by focusing on the process and reminding herself that it’s not about the numbers but real people and their lives.

“You are going through someone’s life in a really deep way,” Messinger said. “In class, we focus a lot on the law, but actually working with people who these cases impact has been a rewarding experience for me.”

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