Joining more than 35 projects working nationwide on behalf of the wrongly convicted, the new Institute for Actual Innocence at the Richmond College of Law is a legal clinic where law students assist convicted individuals with appeals asserting innocence.
Professor Mary Kelly Tate said she was inspired to create the institute after hearing a speech by Peter Neufeld. He is a defense lawyer who helped found the Innocence Project, a program that focuses on using DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people.
Tate teaches a prerequisite course on the causes of wrongful conviction. Race, social and economic factors all contribute, as well as poor interrogation techniques by police, false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications.
Most of the time, she said, the criminal justice system works as it should and guilty people go to prison. But it's important to help students recognize the possibility for error in the system before they begin practicing law, she said.
"We make mistakes," she said. "There's something sort of primitive in society's unwillingness to face that."
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Richmond Institute for Actual Innocence