Defending the Innocent in Texas

The Texas Center for Actual Innocence is open for business at the UT Law School

Members of UT's Center for Actual Innocence
Members of UT's Center for Actual Innocence (Photo By John Anderson)

Five years ago, when UT School of Law professor Bill Allison received a call from the Wisconsin Innocence Project asking if he would act as local counsel for Christopher Ochoa – who after more than a decade in prison, was eventually cleared by DNA evidence of the 1988 Austin murder of Nancy DePriest – he had no idea that his agreement to take on the case would change the course of his legal practice.

Throughout the Ochoa case, as Allison learned in harrowing detail how an innocent man could be caught up in the criminal justice system, he wondered about how many more Ochoas there might be. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice houses over 126,000 inmates in 60 prisons all over the state. Given the number of exonerations being reported all over the U.S., Allison figured that there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent people serving time for crimes they did not commit. Allison spoke with his UT colleagues Bob Dawson and David Sheppard about starting an innocence project at UT. "The subject matter is so fascinating," Allison said, "we talked about it constantly."

In 2000, they approached Dean William Powers with the idea. At that time, there were no similar projects in Texas and the need was obvious. Powers acknowledged the need but said the school could not fund it. For the next three years, the idea of an innocence project – a clinic at the law school that would focus on investigating cases of inmates incarcerated for crimes they did not commit – was put on the back burner.

Finally, last summer, Dawson filed the paperwork necessary to create the Texas Center for Actual Innocence as a nonprofit organization. After struggling for a few months with the realities of trying to find space and money to run the project, they again approached Dean Powers about law school involvement. This time he approved the project, and within weeks, 50 law students had applied for the 10 student clinic slots.

Since the clinic's opening last fall, students have screened more than 500 letters from inmates who have written requesting assistance. Many of the inmates' requests are outside the scope of the project – they are not asserting their innocence but want help with parole questions, or need books to read – but the students have tried to answer all letters and provide whatever assistance they can.

The three attorneys are not compensated for their work with the Center; they teach class once a week during the school year, and supervise the students' work on 10-15 open cases of actual innocence. Although they have not yet filed for relief in the courts or with the Board of Pardons and Paroles for any of their clients, they believe that their clients have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. As Allison acknowledges, it takes a significant amount of time to properly investigate and prepare a claim of actual innocence.

Professor David Dow, at the University of Houston Law Center, had also seen the need for a Texas innocence project, and finding strong interest among UH law students, opened the Texas Innocence Network in March of 2000. Since that time, the Network has screened more than 3,500 letters from inmates, done at least minimal investigation in about 700 cases and further investigation in about 70. Two cases in which UH students were involved have resulted in exonerations, and two more are pending before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. A capital case that UH students investigated has recently been remanded by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for further hearings.

Dow and his UH students were instrumental in the organization of the National Innocence Conference held in Austin two weeks ago. At that conference, experts from around the country – including Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who in 1992 started the first Innocence Project in the country at Cardozo Law School in New York – spoke about the need to coordinate resources, research, and expertise among the nearly 40 innocence projects that have opened all over the country in the last 10 years. Dow and Allison acknowledge the need for the two innocence projects in Texas to coordinate, and they now communicate about possible cases on a regular basis. They also lament that there are insufficient resources available to uncover miscarriages of justice – like that in Christopher Ochoa's case.

Ochoa himself has taken his own further step against injustice – he is enrolled at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, and, in a couple of weeks, will join the Wisconsin Innocence Project's student clinical program, assigned to investigate the claims of inmates who say they are in jail for crimes they didn't commit. Ochoa will have plenty of reasons to take their claims seriously.

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