Texas students in innocence projects play key role in exonerations
AUSTIN -- For years, James Woodard wrote letter after letter from his prison cell, hoping to convince anyone willing to listen that he was innocent.
Most of his pleas were ignored, but some weren't. Among those who took an interest was Alexis Hoff, a student at Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth.
In 2007, Hoff, now Alexis Hoff Allen, was a member of the Wesleyan Innocence Project, composed of law student volunteers who spend hours of their own time investigating possible wrongful convictions.
Working with the Dallas County public defender's office and district attorney's office, the 25-year-old student pored over court records, transcripts and other documents in an exhaustive re-examination of the case. Allen's review ultimately helped lead to DNA testing that cleared Woodard in the 1981 slaying of his girlfriend.
"She was a godsend for me," said Woodard, who walked out of prison in 2008 after spending 27 years behind bars and now lives in Dallas. "I absolutely love her."
Although their efforts don't always yield success stories like Woodard's, innocence projects on university campuses have become a powerful force in the criminal justice system. The work of student volunteers has figured heavily in many of the 42 exonerations in Texas -- the most in the nation -- and helped clear Tim Cole of Fort Worth, who died in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.
"They are extremely essential," said attorney Michelle Moore of the Dallas County public defender's office, who credits Wesleyan law students for assisting in many of the DNA-based reversals in Dallas County. "They've been very instrumental from the start."
Typically guided by professional advisers, students plow through old court records and police files, interview witnesses and prisoners, and sometimes spend days on the road looking for inconsistencies and evidence that might suggest a wrongful conviction. It's shoe-leather detective work that often takes students through cold cases that perhaps all but the inmate have long since forgotten.
Two students at the Innocence Project of Texas, founded by Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn and based at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, conducted much of the preliminary work that contributed to Cole's posthumous exoneration by a Travis County judge.
The group began pursuing the case after receiving a letter from the real assailant, Jerry Wayne Johnson, who was in prison on three rape convictions and later confessed to the rape for which Cole had been convicted.
The two students, Sarah Hegi and Nick Vilbas, who have since graduated, interviewed Johnson, searched records and made frequent trips to the police department and prosecutors' offices to dig up evidence. Among their discoveries was a color Polaroid photograph that had been used to identify Cole; photos of other suspects were black and white, thus making Cole more prominent.
"The students played an integral part in clearing Tim's name," said Cole's brother, Cory Session, who is now policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas. "If it hadn't been for those students at the Texas Tech law clinic, we wouldn't have come to this historic day."
Another high-profile case is that of Texas Death Row prisoner Hank Skinner, who was convicted of capital murder for killing his live-in girlfriend and her two mentally impaired sons in 1995. The case received national attention after students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University in Illinois began looking into the conviction and interviewed a star witness who later recanted her testimony. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Skinner's petition to obtain DNA evidence that he says will prove his innocence.
There are more than 60 innocence projects nationwide, Medill project Director David Protess said.
Widening public concern over wrongful convictions in Texas has spurred growing student involvement in campus innocence projects. Two operate at Texas Wesleyan University: the Wesleyan Innocence Project at the downtown law school and the Wesleyan Justice Project, composed largely of undergraduate students at the main campus in east Fort Worth. Innocence projects at the state's four public law schools -- the University of Houston, the University of Texas, Texas Southern University and Texas Tech -- are subsidized by the state, each receiving $100,000 a year.
Students at other campuses are also getting involved. More than 75 students turned out for a daylong innocence seminar at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"Most of these students have never read a trial transcript or a police report," said Anthony Champagne, professor of political science and director of pre-law at UT-Dallas. "The amazing thing is that these students turned out on a Saturday and stayed there all day long. It was pretty extraordinary."
The apparent effectiveness of the university projects will likely prompt a state advisory panel to back away from recommending the creation of a state innocence commission similar to those operating in California, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Named after Cole, who received a posthumous pardon from Gov. Rick Perry earlier this year, the state advisory panel is charged with recommending criminal justice improvements to curtail wrongful convictions in Texas. At their last meeting, members leaned against the creation of a state innocence commission, largely because of the work being done through university innocence projects, and discussed tightening coordination among them.
The two projects at Texas Wesleyan, a 120-year-old university affiliated with the United Methodist Church, have gained increasing recognition within criminal justice circles and have been involved in hundreds of cases over the past five years.
The law school's Wesleyan Innocence Project, started in 2005, works with the Dallas public defender's office, which makes many of the case assignments to the Wesleyan law students.
The undergrads initially worked with the law students but branched into the separate Wesleyan Justice Project about two years ago.
Wesleyan officials say that keeping the two groups separate fits the differing educational needs of law students and undergraduates. More than 130 students handle cases through the law school program. The Wesleyan Justice Project has 30 to 35 participants, including undergrads as well as alumni and other interested community members. One is a nurse who examines medical reports as part of the research. Students in the undergrad group work closely with the innocence project at Texas Tech.
The two Wesleyan groups have an identical goal: making sure that inmates aren't behind bars when they shouldn't be. Taylor Anderson, president of the Wesleyan Innocence Project, says the experience can be rewarding and eye-opening.
"You come into this law business, you think that everything runs perfect," said the 24-year-old law student. "You learn that everything is very imperfect."
Anderson said he was hooked after attending a meeting in which an exonerated former prisoner told of his ordeal.
"I learned this is something I wanted to do, something I wanted to be involved in," he said. Now, much of his daily reading -- along with his studies -- includes stacks of letters from inmates, who routinely reach out to innocence projects in the hope of finding a sympathetic ally.
Some of the letters are brief requests for applications; others can be page after page of typewritten pleadings. While many of the claims are baseless, Anderson says he scours each one to see whether there may have been a legitimate witness who wasn't called or evidence that didn't make it into trial.
Alexis Allen, who has graduated from the Wesleyan law school and now works in the Dallas city attorney's office, said she became involved in Woodard's case after the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas district attorney's office felt that it merited further review.
Allen first read the trial transcript and then dug through additional records. Working with assistant public defender Michelle Moore in Dallas, she also interviewed Woodard after he was returned to Dallas on a bench warrant.
"I did a preliminary review of the case and recommended that it should be one of the cases that was tested" through DNA, Allen said. The DNA testing proved that Woodard did not commit the murder, resulting in his release in April 2008.
"To help know I changed someone's life for the better in a tremendous way is a pretty good feeling," Allen said.
DAVE MONTGOMERY IS THE STAR-TELEGRAM'S AUSTIN BUREAU CHIEF. 512-476-4294