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Ever since the UNM School of Law established the Innocence and Justice Project (IJP) in 2001, the requests – more than 750 – have far overwhelmed the ability of law students and volunteer lawyers to keep up. A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will provide new momentum to the program. The grant will inject $780,000 into the law school's efforts to revisit questionable convictions during the next year.
"We have been operating on $2,000 since the project began," says Professor April Land, who has volunteered for the IJP at the law school. "Now we can review seven years' of questionnaires with fresh eyes to determine where there are valid claims."
With the grant money, a full-time research professor will be hired to supervise the screening and investigation of cases and to assist the current adjunct professor who teaches the Innocence and Justice Seminar. This new professor would also supervise law students, develop a curriculum and supervise a paralegal and an investigator, who will review the cases and claims, focusing mostly on DNA evidence. The grant also will fund four full-time law students during next summer, and pay the expenses of volunteer contract attorneys.
Associate Dean Barbara Bergman looks forward to the opportunities the grant will bring to UNM law students. "With more resources to review questionnaires, the students in the Innocence and Justice Seminar will receive cases that provide the best learning experience and will be able to see cases at all stages of the review process," she says. "A professor whose focus is entirely on the Innocence and Justice Project will be able to stay on top of changes in this rapidly developing field."
Ann Delpha (`10) will serve as the project's paralegal, continuing and expanding on a role she has played in the project since its inception, when she was a paralegal at Freedman, Boyd, Hollander, Goldberg & Ives.
"I'm excited to get to serve this population, which desperately needs this service," she says. "When I came to law school, everything was in books and after a while, things don't click on a gut level. I want to be able to say I made a positive experience in someone's life and prevented something bad from happening.
"As a student, this is a unique type of service learning – showing ways cases can get derailed," adds Delpha.
An additional $144,648 will be used to expand the capacity of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety's laboratory to conduct DNA testing of evidence and to survey the gathering of evidence practices of the state's 150 law enforcement agencies.
"It's in everyone's interest to make sure people aren't getting wrongfully convicted," says Bergman. "Public safety is served by improving the criminal justice system and by eliminating measures that falsely identify and convict an innocent person."
Bergman also sees the project as having a far-reaching impact: "We are educating the next generation of legislators, lawyers and judges, who will improve the quality of criminal justice in New Mexico, and perhaps we can be a model to other states."