Regarding Innocence

November 30, 2007

Reacting, in part, to problems in the North Carolina legal system raised by the Duke lacrosse case, Duke Law School will establish a center devoted to promoting justice in the criminal justice system and to training lawyers to fight against wrongful convictions. Duke will contribute $1.25 million to the project over five years.

The center will incorporate and expand the school's existing Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project, two programs that investigate credible claims of innocence made by convicted felons in North Carolina and work to raise public awareness of systemic problems in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions.

"The lacrosse case attracted a lot of publicity but is not the only case in which innocent people have suffered harm through the state's legal system," says law professor James Coleman, who led a university committee that examined the lacrosse team's behavior apart from the case and later was prominent in criticizing the actions of former Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong.

Coleman and associate dean Theresa Newman J.D. '88, who teach the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and have served as faculty advisers to the student-led Innocence Project, are expected to play key roles in the development of the new center. Both are leaders in law reform efforts surrounding the issue and serve on the North Carolina Chief Justice's Criminal Justice Study Commission.

The center will expand on existing opportunities for students, offering an undergraduate course on the causes and remedies for wrongful convictions; mini-courses taught by experts in areas such as forensic science, eyewitness identifications, and false confessions; and summer and postgraduate fellowships that involve assisting the clinic and undertaking scholarly research.

Students investigating prisoners' claims of wrongful conviction will be guided by law-school experts and assisted pro bono by law-school alumni and other lawyers. Faculty members, fellows, and students will also undertake initiatives aimed at reforming the state's criminal justice system, Coleman says, by providing expert testimony in support of legislative reforms, drafting model legislation, and filing amicus curiae briefs.

In addition, the center will allow professors and students to interact with criminal-justice professionals and journalists invited to campus for roundtables and seminars.