SPOKANE, Wash. - Most law students go to school, hoping to some day make a change. For students involved with clinics at Innocence Project NW, they're not waiting until after graduation to free the innocent and change the criminal justice system.
Innocence Project NW tackles a huge task with a small staff. Attorneys and volunteers dig through mail and case files, then go to work to prove the innocence of the wrongly convicted. But, they don't do it alone. Students in the University of Washington School of Law provide invaluable case work and legislative advocacy to support their efforts.
"I came to law school just to get money," said Richard Devenport, a third year law student from Spokane. But, Devenport quickly changed direction when he began to work with IPNW.
Late last year, he saw that hard work come to fruition in the case of Donovan Allen. Allen was serving time for the murder of his mother, but always maintained his innocence. IPNW had the DNA tested and not only cleared Allen, but pointed to another suspect instead.
"We prepared a motion for a new trial and we negotiated with prosecutors for the eventual release and exoneration of [Allen]," Devenport said. "We went and got him at the prison."
Not every class witnesses an exoneration, but students in the program have a chance to meet 14 men freed by this program. For many, it changes the course of their lives.
"To say I was moved to tears would be an understatement," said law student Chelsea Hager, about meeting exoneree Ted Bradford. "I immediately knew that combining my interest in policy work and combining it with this new passion for innocence work, this is why I came to law school. It gave me this new found passion in life."
It's more than just case work. Students also work with the legislative advocacy clinic and lobby lawmakers for changes in the system. They've helped pass laws about preservation of post-conviction DNA and worked on a law that provides compensation for the wrongly convicted.
"Hopefully, as they go into the world, whether they become prosecutors or defense attorneys, business lawyers, whatever they choose to do, they will do it more carefully and realize that their work has impact," said IPNW Director Anna Tolin. "They have a responsibility with that.
The students fully understand that responsibility, and are grateful at the change they've been able to make so far.
"I had the opportunity to join this clinic and work with these titans of justice," Devenport said. "I never thought I'd be doing criminal law or legislative advocacy. It's been a wild ride."
To read more about Innocence Project NW and to donate to support their efforts, visit their website.