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SKILL SHARPENER

Law Students Actively Involved in Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions [by Erica Winter] It’s not a typical summer job. Law students working at Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions hit the ground running as they seek to prove clients’ innocence or lesser culpability in cases where a court has already ruled.

forensics, “but I was having a lot of fun.”

After just a few weeks at the center, Nicole

LeFrancois was an undergraduate at the

LeFrancois, who will be a second-year

University of Chicago when then-Governor of

Yale Law student in the fall, is traveling to

Illinois George Ryan commuted the sentences

Tarleton was also “pessimistic,” he says,

Michigan to interview witnesses and test alibi

of all 157 Illinois death-row inmates. The

“I was surprised when we won; happy, but

evidence in an effort to help a center client.

Center on Wrongful Convictions was instru-

surprised.” When the Williams case was

LeFrancois is glad to be getting involved

mental in freeing several wrongly convicted

resolved in early July, Tarleton and the other

and values “having contact with real people

people at that point, and its work was cited

Center workers went to work on other cases.

whose lives depend on what we do.”

in the Governor’s January 11, 2003, speech

Tarleton worked at the Center for three

announcing the mass clemency. LeFrancois

semesters in a row, including last summer,

The Michigan client, who has been in prison

remembered the speech and its result, as

and he says, space allowing, “Hopefully, I can

for 15 years, was convicted of a murder-arson

well as the center. “I really admired their

come back.”

after her husband died in a fire that destroyed

work,” says LeFrancois. Monica Hunt is also going into her third year

their home, says Jane Raley, the center’s Senior Staff Attorney and Assistant Clinical

Governor Ryan’s actions also inspired

at Northwestern Law. This summer, she

Professor at Northwestern Law.

Michael Tarleton not only to work at the

is working at a Washington, DC, law firm.

center, but also to go to law school in the first

Last summer at the Center, working on the

The center’s staff members think the

place. Tarleton will be a third-year student at

Darnell Williams case for one month was “an

convicted woman is innocent and that the

Northwestern Law in the fall and intends to

extraordinary experience,” Hunt says. She

fire was an accident. “Arson cases are the

become a public defender. He is against the

helped to draft the memo to the governor of

happening thing right now,” says Raley. Arson

death penalty, “and I’m generally concerned

Indiana. “I had no idea how much we were

science, she explains, like DNA-identification

about the way people are treated by our jus-

contributing until it was over,” Hunt says of

science, has expanded greatly in the past few

tice system,” he says. This summer, Tarleton

the student involvement in the case. “We

years. Advances have allowed more accu-

is working with the Georgia Public Defender

learned a lot with the guidance of the lawyers

rate identification of causes of fires. These

Standards Council.

there,” she says.

reevaluate whether the conclusion of arson

Last summer, with the Center, Tarleton

One of Hunt’s tasks for the Williams case

was accurate in the first place.

worked on the Darnell Williams case, in

was going to meet the victims’ families to

which a man on death row in Indiana was set

inform them that the Center was working to

While in Michigan, LeFrancois, along with

to die within weeks, while his convicted co-

change Williams’s death sentence. It was

others from the center, will be re-interview-

defendant had his death sentence changed to

“not a pleasant experience,” she says; the

ing witnesses and checking the client’s

life in prison after testing with a very low IQ.

family was very angry at first and did not want

techniques can be used in old arson cases to

to talk with her and her colleague. It was

alibi. The client had said she was far from her home when the fire started, during a

Tarleton did research on disparities in sen-

important to visit the victim’s family, says

snowstorm. LeFrancois and her colleagues

tencing between defendants. It “felt good to

Hunt, because “they’d been neglected by the

will check driving times between their client’s

be a part of it,” says Tarleton. He also worked

system as well.” The family had not been

location and her home, estimating how long

in Indiana with others from the Center, talk-

previously informed that Williams’ sentencing

it would have taken in the snow. “It’s an inter-

ing with former jurors, as well as investiga-

was being challenged.

esting case,” says Raley.

tors who had been at the murder scene. “It’s odd,” says Tarleton, who is very interested in

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In her work at the center, Hunt saw that “we

continued on back


SKILL SHARPENER

don’t just represent the defendant, but also decency.” In law school, the law can seem like a completely adversarial process, says Hunt. Instead, says Hunt, lawyers should be stewards of the system and the people on both sides. Lawyers should “make sure everyone in the process is cared for,” she says, especially in criminal law. “Our job is not to win; it’s to make amends the best we can.”

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Law Students Actively Involved in Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions  

Law students actively work on wrongful conviction in Northwestern Center.

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