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Law students taking on more cases through new partnership with Midwest Innocence Project

Monday, September 22, 2014

LAWRENCE – Since 1965, the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at the University of Kansas School of Law has worked to obtain new trials for convicted individuals whose constitutional rights were violated. In the last five years, 38 Project clients have been granted new trials. But a lack of access to funding for forensic testing and expert testimony has hampered the Project’s ability to prove actual innocence, where the ultimate goal is exoneration. 

A new partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project aims to change that.

The Midwest Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Network, is dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

Through the collaboration, KU’s Project for Innocence will take on Kansas innocence cases that originate with the Midwest Innocence Project. The KU clinic will receive financial support for investigation and litigation – including potential expert testimony and DNA and forensic testing costs – and will gain access to resources available through the Innocence Network.

“The partnership will benefit everyone involved,” said Jean Phillips, clinical professor and director of KU’s Project for Innocence.

“Despite generous private support from alumni, we don’t have the financial resources to pay for extensive testing,” she said. “A single DNA analysis runs $1,400, and one case frequently requires several tests for comparison purposes, which can add up quickly. This partnership will expand our capacity to serve clients who may be incarcerated unjustly and provide additional opportunities for our students to gain insight into the criminal justice system.”

According to the Midwest Innocence Project, recent independent studies conservatively estimate that between 2 percent and 5 percent of all inmates in America were falsely convicted. Some estimates reach as high as 7 percent, including up to 4 percent of inmates on death row. This equates to somewhere between 2,000 and 7,000 people in the MIP’s five-state region.

“After a conviction, the appeals process focuses more on finality over fairness. It is designed to be incredibly difficult and is very expensive,” said Tricia Bushnell, MIP legal director. “We are one of the few places indigent inmates can turn to regain their freedom when the legal system has failed. This partnership with the University of Kansas School of Law helps us expand our capacity to take cases and gives us a presence in the classroom to teach the next generation of lawyers, investigators and lawmakers how to identify and prevent these injustices.”

The partnership will have an immediate effect on the KU clinic’s work with clients like Floyd Bledsoe, who is serving a prison sentence for a first-degree murder conviction. Bledsoe has always maintained his innocence, but despite extensive efforts to establish he did not receive a fair trial, he remains incarcerated. With support from the Midwest Innocence Project, KU’s Project for Innocence will be able to continue to move forward with DNA testing in the Bledsoe case.

“The Midwest Innocence Project has many cases from Kansas waiting to be investigated,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney for the KU clinic. “We have already begun to incorporate these cases into our caseload.”

Former KU law professor Paul E. Wilson founded what was then the Defender Project in 1965 to help prisoners who otherwise might not receive legal representation. Students in the clinic represent state and federal prisoners in appellate and post-conviction litigation in state and federal courts. Their work includes conducting fact investigations, drafting pleadings, filing motions, preparing for hearings and creating case strategy.

In addition to challenging convictions, in 2009 and 2011, a Project team won rare grants of executive clemency for three men convicted of robbery during a racially charged Civil Rghts-era trial in Wichita.

The Project receives more than 200 letters a year from inmates seeking assistance.

Pictured above, from left: Pete Smith, president of the Midwest Innocence Project board of directors; Tricia Bushnell, MIP legal director; Professor Jean Phillips, director of KU's Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies; and KU Law Dean Stephen Mazza

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