Law students from the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University are learning to look at cases differently — guilty until proven innocent.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people and prevent future wrongful convictions, recently expanded to Pittsburgh. In September, the project opened an office in the Tribone Center for Clinical Legal Education at Duquesne University.
“This is where the Project, law enforcement and the district attorney come together. We want to make sure the right person is in jail,” said Liz Delosa, supervising attorney for the Project in Pittsburgh.
The Project expanded after its Philadelphia office — which opened in 2009 — received about 5,000 letters from inmates in Western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh office allows the organization to “have a presence for the community and more easily litigate in Western PA,” Delosa said.
The 5,000 letters represent just 10 percent of the people who claim to be innocent in the United States, according to Delosa.
Pitt Law students Sean Champagne and Kyle Watson in addition to four Duquesne law students will be working with the office, assisting attorneys. The externship involves weekly training about the issues that lead to wrongful convictions, such as junk science — when unproven theory is presented as fact — and false confessions, according to Champagne.
Creating an office in Pittsburgh allows Pitt and Duquesne law students to gain crucial career experience, according to Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University and previous dean of Duquesne’s law school.
“This project is a spectacular new initiative that is going to have students from both law schools working with top notch lawyers and making the difference between life and death and life in prison,” Gormley said.
The Project also unites the law community, Gormley said.
“Pittsburgh’s lawyers care about the collective work, which is hard to foster in big cities,” Gormley said. “We have so many lawyers who work together on big initiatives to make a difference.”
Champagne heard about the Project while applying for law schools and wanted to be a part of it after graduation. But he wasn’t always interested in law.
At age 17, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in 2012, five miles from where Champagne went to high school at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford, Florida. Champagne, who was particularly concerned with race issues, said Martin’s death solidified his pursuits.
Two years later, after the Martin case concluded and the shooter, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, Champagne had a “crisis of conscious.” He concluded that his major at the time, anthropology, seemed irrelevant and became inspired by Charles Garry, an American civil rights attorney in the 1960s and ’70s who worked against the death penalty.
“There’s a conflict between those who want to dispassionately observe social problems and those who want to do something about them,” Champagne said.
Currently, the Project is litigating 22 cases and actively reviewing 250 cases statewide. To get there is not an easy feat, according to Delosa. The process moves in four stages.
First, the Project receives a letter from a prisoner. The attorneys send back a 12-page questionnaire asking the inmate to recount his or her case: What happened? Where? Who was the judge? Who was your attorney?
According to Delosa, Carlisle, Pennsylvania resident Letitia Smallwood’s seven year-long process could be a monumental case if she’s declared innocent. Convicted in 1973, Smallwood wrote to the Project on Sept. 24, 2009.
Smallwood spent 42 years in Muncy State Correctional Institution in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, after being charged with murder and arson.
If Smallwood is exonerated, she will have served the longest sentence of any of the Project’s exonerees.
In the second stage of the process, Pittsburgh attorneys volunteer pro bono hours to review the questionnaire for red flags. These can include untested DNA evidence or an inmate convicted on testimony of an eyewitness or an incentivized informant, also known as “snitch testimony,” Delosa said.
Students, like Champange, help pro bono attorneys complete high-level review, tracking down every piece of paper associated with the case to recreate the scene and figure out why and how this inmate was convicted.
“Studying anthropology was very helpful. It gave me a bit of background in forensic science and taught me to be inherently skeptical of anyone who says, ‘I’m right because science says so,’” Champagne said.
In the initial investigation of Smallwood’s case, a state trooper noted that the fire must have been started on the second and third floors of the apartment building, according to the Project’s website. Two points of origin means that the fire was intentionally set.
Since her arrest, advancements in modern science, such as discovering how a fire starts and analyzing the materials used, allowed evidence from Smallwood’s case to be tested. This new evidence means that the court can retry Smallwood’s case.
The fourth stage is in the hands of the court. If the team believes in the inmate’s claim of innocence, a panel of criminal defense attorneys and former prosecutors assembles to review the case.
The panel either approves the case for litigation, requires the team to investigate further and return for another evaluation or declares that the case is not worthy of their resources.
The panel found Smallwood’s case worthy because of technological advancements. On April 20, 2015, Judge Edward E. Guido granted Smallwood’s petition and ordered a new trial. The Commonwealth appealed Judge Guido’s decision to Pennsylvania Superior Court, Delosa said.
The court released Smallwood on bail. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she awaits the outcome of the appeal.
For Delosa, cases like Smallwood’s, highlight how convictions dependent on “junk science” can now be prevented. The newly-established Pittsburgh office plans to do just that.
“If there is evidence to be tested, it should be tested,” she said.