KU's Project for Innocence wins murder conviction reversal in federal court

Monday, July 20, 2015

LAWRENCE – A learning experience for one University of Kansas law student turned into a second chance last week for a woman serving life in prison in connection with a high-profile Topeka murder.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 15 ruled that Kimberly Sharp was unconstitutionally convicted in the 2006 slaying of a Topeka homeless advocate. The court handed down the decision based on an appeal by KU’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

“We determine Ms. Sharp’s confessional statements following the promise of no jail time were involuntary, the state trial court erred by admitting them at trial in violation of Ms. Sharp’s Fifth and Fourteenth amendment rights, and the error was harmful,” judges wrote in a 3-0 decision.

Abby West, a 2015 KU Law graduate from Shawnee, authored the brief in the Sharp case while enrolled in Project for Innocence last summer. She spent hours poring over trial documents and prior decisions, including an unsuccessful appeal to the Kansas District Court. Project Director Jean Phillips supervised West’s research and writing.

“It was overwhelming at the beginning because I had never done any criminal defense work before,” West said. “At the same time, it was really interesting to familiarize myself with the case. I never got to meet Kim, but I read so much about what happened to her.”

In challenging the constitutionality of Sharp’s conviction, West set out to prove that her client’s rights to due process and equal protection under the law were violated when the trial court admitted statements Sharp made to police that were not freely and voluntarily given.

Sharp made those statements to police during the course of their investigation into the murder of David Owen, a self-professed homeless advocate known for ransacking homeless camps. In June 2006, he confronted Sharp and her three male co-defendants at a Topeka homeless camp.

After a brief altercation, two of the men dragged Owen into the woods and tied him to a tree, where he was later found dead. During an interview and re-enactment with police, Sharp made statements that implied she was a minor participant in the events and was subsequently charged in state court with first-degree felony murder and kidnapping.

Sharp moved to suppress her confessional statements, arguing they were involuntary because the police promised she wouldn’t go to jail and to help find shelter for her and her two young children. That effort failed in Shawnee County District Court, and a jury found Sharp guilty on both counts. The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas denied Sharp’s petition for habeas relief.

After reviewing the interrogation videos, however, the 10th Circuit agreed that Sharp cooperated with the interviewing officer because he promised no jail time and that any statements she made after that promise should not have been admissible in court. The state now has the option to retry Sharp.

Federal habeas corpus cases are nearly impossible to win, said Phillips, a clinical professor of law at KU who presented oral arguments in Sharp’s case before the 10th Circuit. West deserves high praise for the latest victory, Phillips said.

“Our goal in the project is for students to take ownership of their cases. We don’t want them to be glorified paralegals,” Phillips said. “I’m the safety net to make sure that nothing gets missed and everything gets argued. But Abby took ownership. She did a great job with that brief.”

West, who is studying for the bar exam and finalizing her job plans, was excited to learn about the court’s favorable decision. Working on Sharp’s case and others in the Project for Innocence proved to be the best experience she had in law school.

“It was the one chance I had to work for a client who really needed my help. There are people out there who don’t have access to the justice system,” West said. “It showed me how important it is – even if you do corporate law – to try and do pro bono work or donate to people who do. As a law student, I see it as a privilege to be able to get this education. I think we have a duty to the public to give back.”

Photo: Recent KU Law graduate Abby West, left, discusses with clinical professor Jean Phillips last week’s favorable federal appeals court decision in a case that West handled as a student in KU’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

Law class explores human trafficking, provides resources

Wednesday, May 13, 2015



LAWRENCE — The common perception of human trafficking might be that of young people forced into prostitution or substandard working conditions. The ways in which attorneys, and even law students, can help prevent and respond to human trafficking might not make the headlines, but a new class at the University of Kansas School of Law is helping those on the front lines fight human trafficking and serve victims.

Katie Cronin, clinical associate professor at the law school and in the Department of Family Medicine, taught Human Trafficking Law and Policy for the first time this semester. Cronin, who also directs the law school’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, said she wanted to teach this new class to help law students understand that attorneys in many different specializations will likely encounter this issue at some point in their careers. The course introduced students to international protocols and domestic laws that are designed to prevent human trafficking, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators and those who benefit from human trafficking. The students, in turn, wrote papers that speak to a particular facet of human trafficking or produced projects that will provide resources to attorneys, health care workers, police and shelters who assist human trafficking victims here in the state of Kansas.

“Human trafficking has been viewed as a coastal problem. People don’t always grasp that its victims originate in the Midwest as well,” Cronin said. “There are victims of all ages, both male and female, and it’s a problem both foreign and domestic. Sex trafficking often garners most of the media attention, but, statistically, labor trafficking is happening at a much higher rate, and there can be sexual victimization happening in the labor trafficking context. To think of sex and labor exploitation as always being two very distinct things is false.“

In addition to learning about laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the class produced projects specifically designed to assist attorneys, victim advocates, police and health care workers in helping trafficking victims. The projects included a manual for pro bono attorneys working T visa cases, an immigration remedy available to foreign national victims, prepared with the help of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Lauren Bavitz prepared a Know Your Rights brochure for trafficking victims served by the Willow Domestic Violence Center. There are a host of legal issues for victims to consider, from protection orders to immigration issues to housing matters.

“I was interested in the class to understand the legal nuances in combating the issue. For example, I wanted to learn the different legal remedies between non-citizen versus citizen victims and the most effective way to prosecute perpetrators,” Bavitz said. “My project connects a victim-centered approach with practical legal resources, because often, legal remedies are unattainable for those who do not know where to look. I hope that in distributing the brochure throughout Kansas, I can connect a few victims and families to the legal remedies they need.”

Marci Mauch, a student in the class and a former MLP Clinic participant, produced training materials to help police officers and health care professionals at the University of Kansas Hospital recognize signs of human trafficking and appropriate ways to ask questions, respond and offer help. Trafficking victims often come into contact with police or medical professionals, and it is not always immediately clear that they may be involved in a trafficking situation.

“While working at (KU’s) Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, I learned that health care providers are in an excellent and unique position to identify victims of trafficking. I hope it will make a difference for all those that use it – for the health care providers to be able to identify the victims, the victims to receive the help they need to escape or overcome their situations and attorneys and law enforcement to be able to identify the traffickers, build a case against them and help the victims,” Mauch said. “Trafficking victims can be hidden in plain sight. If something seems off, it is better to say something than to ignore it. So many trafficking victims are rescued by good Samaritans that noticed something was wrong and reported it to the authorities.”

Students also researched and wrote about a range of topics, including:

  • Human trafficking and connections to the U.S. military
  • Ensuring multinational corporations are accountable and their supply lines are free from trafficking
  • LGBT youth and trafficking
  • Victims who are minors
  • Immigration and trafficking.

The value of examining the topic of human trafficking in a broad legal sense lies in the fact that the problem touches so many areas of law, Cronin said. Whether the students go on to work in immigration or corporate law, prosecution, victim services or numerous other specialties, they’ll be able to make a difference.

“We have this cohort of law students who will graduate and pursue a range of legal work but who will now have awareness of this complex problem,” Cronin said. “Knowing students have that awareness at the beginning of their careers excites me.”

Providing services and resources to those already working in the field also gives students valuable experience while proving they can help address societal problems while they are still students.

“I think the class was solution-focused. Of course, we started by gaining an understanding of what the problem is and its basis in the law, but then we looked at ways to use the law as a tool to tackle it,” Cronin said. “That corresponds with my understanding of what KU Law students are truly capable of achieving, and I think it corresponds with the abolitionist values of our state and university.”

Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic to benefit from Proud to Be a Jayhawk tailgate

Thursday, September 05, 2013

LAWRENCE — The Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic for the School of Law and The Big Event will benefit from the 2013 Proud To Be A Jayhawk tailgating fundraiser. The KU football season kicks off Saturday, Sept. 7, when the Jayhawks take on the University of South Dakota at Memorial Stadium.

The law school launched its Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) Clinic — the first in Kansas — in January 2008. MLP is a health care delivery model that integrates legal services into comprehensive patient care. Working with health care providers and under the supervision of licensed attorneys, law students provide free legal assistance to the low-income patients of the KU Medical Center, JayDoc Free Clinic and Health Care Access.

The Big Event, which began in 2010, connects University of Kansas students, faculty and staff with the Lawrence community by recruiting volunteers to work at hundreds of local job sites during one day of service.

More than $50,000 has been raised through the Proud To Be A Jayhawk tailgating fundraiser since the promotion began in 2001. Past beneficiaries include the BullDoc Free Clinic through the KU Medical Center, the Marching Jayhawks, Math and Science Center, Mi Familia Program, International House, Commission on the Status of Women, Global Awareness Program, Global Partners Program, Center for Community Outreach, Spirit Squad, Nichols League Student Leadership Fund, Studio 804, BiodieselInitiative, Center for Sustainability, Emerging Green Builders, the Jaydoc free medical clinics in Kansas City and Wichita, the KU Audio-Reader sensory garden for the visually impaired and KU's Disability Resources office.

Tailgating and shuttle bus information:
Fans 21 and older may tailgate with alcohol in designated areas during a three-hour pregame period and during halftime. Tailgating with alcohol is not permitted during game time. On Sept. 7, tailgating begins at 3 p.m. Free shuttle buses will begin running two hours before game time from campus parking lots to the east side of Memorial Stadium.

Designated tailgating lots are 1, 2, 3, 33, 34, 36, 39, 50, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 65, 72, 90, 91, 94, 96 and 130. Tailgating is permitted in the Mississippi Street parking garage, but no cooking is allowed. A map can be found in the 2013 Kansas Football Guide.

Parking and Transit will sell a limited number of parking spaces in lot 72, between the Allen Fieldhouse parking garage and the Burge Union, and in lot 90, between the fieldhouse and the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center. Both are approved tailgating lots and are served by a free shuttle for travel to and from Memorial Stadium. Parking will cost $20.

For people with disabilities, there are 12 parking stalls in lot 59 on the stadium's east side and 26 stalls in lot 94 on the west side. Each costs $20.

Alcohol consumption is not permitted on campus or city streets.

In addition to providing portable toilets in all designated tailgating areas, Kansas Athletics will provide burn buckets for fans to safely dispose of hot coals.

In an effort to comply with all Homeland Security recommendations and provide the safest atmosphere for coaches, players and fans, backpacks and other large bags are not allowed in Memorial Stadium.

Tailgating rules:
Alcohol may be consumed only during a three-hour period before kickoff and during halftime in designated tailgating areas.

Underage drinking, disorderly conduct or other unlawful conduct will not be tolerated.

No kegs or other alcohol containers with a capacity greater than 1 gallon may be brought into a tailgating area. Fans are strongly encouraged not to use or bring glass containers.

Alcohol may not be brought into Memorial Stadium.

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