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Sometimes justice is slow in coming, but when it finally arrives, the long hours and repeated setbacks fade away. For the many University of New Mexico law students who worked on a case that came to the attention of the New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project (IJP) shortly after it organized at the UNM School of Law in 2001, a decision 10 years later by U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez brought a day they feared would never come.
“When I received word that Judge Vazquez had granted the habeas corpus petition for Carl, I almost cried,” said Jason Burnette (`04), one of the first students to work on a request from Carl Case, a Carlsbad man who had been convicted of raping and murdering a teenage runaway in 1982. Case had already served more than 20 years in prison in 2003 when he sought the assistance of the IJP to put together a habeas corpus petition seeking a new trial. He had always maintained his innocence, and after reviewing his IJP request, Professor April Land believed him.
Gordon Rahn joined the UNM law faculty in fall 2010 as Research Professor and Supervising Attorney of the New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project (IJP). Previously, he was project coordinator at the Kentucky Innocence Project, and during his 10 years in that position, 10 inmates were exonerated.
As the supervising attorney of IJP, he oversees the daily operations of the project, including supervising the students who review and investigate cases assigned to them. He assists Adjunct Professor Molly Schmidt-Nowara (`01) in the instruction in the Basic Innocence and Justice Seminar and provides instruction for the Advanced Innocence and Justice Seminar.
Rahn earned his J.D. from the Nashville School of Law and his B.S. from Murray State University.
Land has been the driving force behind the law school’s affiliation with the IJP, which was created to review claims of factual innocence. On a shoestring budget, she provided students, sometimes through the clinic and sometimes outside of their law-school obligations, the opportunity to review and research cases that came in through the IJP.
Grant Boosts Project
In 2009, the IJP received a huge boost when it received a $780,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant enabled the UNM law school to hire Gordon Rahn, who joined the faculty last fall as a research professor and IJP supervising attorney. Through his leadership, the law school now offers both a basic and advanced IJP seminar, which provides students with a unique law school experience.
Students are assigned cases to review to determine if new evidence exists that supports the applicant’s claim of factual innocence. The casework gives the students practical experience that helps them develop practice skills that can be used throughout their professional careers.
“With the grant, the pre-trial and skills portion of the IJP seminar has expanded immensely, providing more opportunities for students to do hands-on work,” said Ann Delpha (`10), who serves as the project’s staff attorney and worked on IJP cases while in law school.
Nearly every student visits the applicants in prison. “When the students sit and talk to somebody in prison, every one of them comes away with a different attitude,” said Rahn. “They know they are free to go, but not the person they leave behind. We begin to see the empathy developing in them, which will make them better lawyers.”
The Big Break
Burnette, now a civil rights lawyer in Albuquerque, clearly remembers when the big break came in Case’s case. He had been assigned the Case petition as part of his clinic caseload. He took the phone call that led to a witness who recanted her trial testimony. Two days later, he and classmate Christina Vigil (`04) drove to Carlsbad, where they listened to the witness recant her testimony. That led to a second witness who also recanted. Both witnesses, teenagers at the time of the murder, said they had been intimidated by police to implicate Case.
Professor Carol Suzuki and Nan Erdman ('05) also traveled to Carlsbad to interview potential witnesses and other people who might have had information related to the incident, and to review the physical evidence. "The opportunity to advocate for justice in such a serious matter, knowing that the results of their work had real-life consequences, impressed upon the students the importance of meeting their client's objectives and their supervisors' expectations,” said Suzuki. “In representing Mr. Case, the clinical law students gained valuable experience in legal research and advocacy, investigation, and strategic problem solving."
Burnette and Vigil stayed on the case throughout law school, drafting Case’s first habeas corpus petition; Vigil presented the argument before a Carlsbad judge, assisted by Land and Peter Schoenberg, an Albuquerque lawyer who worked pro bono on the case.
Vigil regularly visited Case in prison and on her first visit she was accompanied by her sister, Lisa Vigil (`11), then an undergraduate student at UNM.
As Burnette prepared to graduate in 2004, Todd Coberly (`06), who was finishing his first year, took over student responsibilities for the case. He worked on the Case petition throughout law school and has continued to remain involved, except when he clerked for the New Mexico Supreme Court. He worked on the case with Schoenberg and Marc Lowry (`99) even after he moved to Washington, D.C. to join the law firm of Williams & Connolly.
In 2009, Coberly moved back to New Mexico, and once the state Supreme Court denied Case’s petition, he assumed the lead role, taking the case to federal court. In March 2011, Vazquez found serious flaws in the original trial and ruled that Case either be retried or set free. State attorneys appealed her decision to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and separately moved to stay her order. In early June, the 10th Circuit denied the stay, returning the case to the Fifth Judicial District. Case will now be retried or released.
“We expect the state to comply promptly with the court’s order and to move quickly toward retrial or to release him,” Coberly told the Albuquerque Journal.
June 13, 2011