As director of University of Richmond School of Law’s Institute for Actual Innocence (IAI), Mary Kelly Tate seeks justice for wrongfully convicted inmates in the Commonwealth of Virginia. While such cases often make sensational headlines, the road to post-conviction justice is an arduous journey that takes the patience of a saint and the tenacity of a bulldog.

“I love this work,” says Tate, “but it requires a tremendous amount of patience and tolerance for very difficult strenuous cases that don’t lend themselves to quick and easy success. … We are an immediate gratification society and I am in a field where it takes years, or even decades, to pursue something.”

Even uncontested cases may take years to resolve, Tate says. “Our legal system puts a premium on finality,” she explains. “…When a matter, individual or controversy has been given its day in court, we as a society say that matter is closed––we cannot repetitively or inefficiently return to it. What we have learned is that we––with disturbing regularity––do not achieve the correct outcome. It is hard to embrace the fact that inaccurate outcomes occur in high-stake trials. That is hard for society to accept.”

According to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and criminal justice system reform, more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing since 1989. DNA exonerees serve prison sentences ranging from five months to 35 years, with an average of 13 years in prison. And though it is impossible to know for sure, studies estimate that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all prisoners in the United State are innocent.

Tate started the Institute in 2005 after attending a program at the law school featuring Peter Neufield from the Innocence Project at Cardozo University and Marvin Anderson, a Virginian who had been exonerated after serving time in prison. After the program, then-law school dean Rodney A. Smolla expressed his wish that Richmond could someday work on behalf of wrongfully convicted inmates.

Tate, who as law clerk to the Hon. Robert Merhige Jr. and as a Richmond public defender had developed a passion for post-conviction work, volunteered to build an innocence project at the law school.

Today, the Institute for Actual Innocence brings together students, faculty, and practicing lawyers to provide pro-bono representation for Virginia prisoners in post-conviction relief. It is part of a national community of innocence projects committed to improving the administration of justice in the United States. The Institute pursues exonerations through post-conviction statutes called “writs of actual innocence.” It is served by an advisory board composed of members of the legal, business, and academic communities in Virginia.

For law students, the Institute comprises an academic and a clinical component. Second-and third-year students must take Tate’s “Wrongful Conviction” course before they can enter the clinical program where they help reinvestigate selected cases by analyzing trial and appellate records, interviewing witnesses, visiting crime scenes, and employing other investigative techniques. This spring, 10 students are working in the clinic.

After meticulously reviewing applications from Virginia prisoners the Institute accepts cases based on newly discovered biological and/or non-biological evidence that strongly supports a prisoner's innocence. For the past three years the Institute has assisted the Innocence Project of New York on a decades-old Virginia murder case. At the same time, it has examined and studied extensivley an arson case. 

Recently, the Institute also began assisting Richmond attorney David Hargett, L’96, with a well-known case involving Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner, who was convicted of the 1995 murder of a Georgia college student in Virginia Beach. In 2009, Turner’s murder conviction was thrown out after another SEAL trainee admitted he had committed the murder. The Commonwealth of Virginia appealed.

Jed Komisin, ’09 and L’12, took Tate’s class in the fall and is now working with the clinic on Turner’s case. “It’s a unique opportunity where the case is coming up in a few weeks before the Virginia Supreme Court,” Komisin says. He and others at the Institute did research, reviewed trial transcripts, and worked on a brief that was submitted to the Court. He hopes to attend the oral argument.

“I enjoy actually working on something that’s real,” he says. “Sometimes in law school you get bogged down in theory and broad-based policies and lose sight of what you’re trying to do as a lawyer. When you get a case with an actual person who needs help, it’s great. It matters in a real-world sense.”

Through their work with the Institute’s clinic and in her “Wrongful Convictions” class, Tate hopes students become aware of the recurring issues and problems in the legal system that lead to wrongful convictions. This fall, Tate adapted her law school class to a First-Year Seminar for undergraduates, “Wrongful Convictions in Modern America."

“[The class] focuses for the students on the absolute essential requirement that the indigent get quality representation at the trial level,” she says. “It is crucial that the University is devoting resources to the population that seeks assistance of this kind.”

Tate also hopes her students leave her class and clinic with “an increased empathy and appropriate humility with regard to what it means to be a lawyer,” she says. “The legal system is a system that is a human one with all the attendant frailties that come with humans endeavors.”

Image by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons license.