Santa Clara University

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The Innocence Project: Righting Wrongful Convictions

The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) offers SCU law students an unusual opportunity to investigate possible wrongful convictions and to represent imprisoned clients with viable claims of innocence. Supervised by experienced legal and forensic staff, students review case histories, conduct interviews pertinent to the case, help write legal documents, and study theories of what contributes to wrongful convictions.

SCU law student Curtis Macon (right) with the exonerated Jeffrey Rodriguez
On the left, Jeffrey Rodriguez and his mother; Rodriguez served nearly six years in prison for robbery, but was released on Feb. 5, 2007, after NCIP was called in to help with his appeal. On the right, SCU law student Curtis Macon, the NCIP intern who helped the public defender with the research that cleared Rodriguez and gave him his freedom.

“Our mission is to help people wrongfully convicted in northern California courts, to educate law students in the process, and to teach the students to be socially conscious lawyers, aware of their own ethical responsibilities,” says Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, NCIP director and an SCU law professor.

The NCIP has helped exonerate six people since its inception in 2001. Together with similar Innocence Projects across the country, it is leading the charge toward legal reform to minimize erroneous convictions. Data compiled through NCIP work on numerous cases suggests that often prosecutorial and defense attorney misconduct, coerced confessions, or mistaken eyewitness identification can result in wrongful convictions.

“I think that students, no matter where they want to practice and particularly if they want to do something completely unrelated to this, should take a course like this in law school, because it’s really going to expose them to something they’ll never see again,” Ridolfi says. “And everything they learn here is completely transferable, because they are learning to litigate, they’re learning to appreciate the adversarial process, they’re learning to write.”

But more than that, she says, they’re learning to be compassionate lawyers who view their clients not as mere cases, but as unique individuals. She remembers when John Stoll was finally exonerated in 2004 of child sexual abuse charges after being wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years. She told students to savor the moment.

“This is such a rich experience for students,” she says. “It’s very exciting to be part of something where there is so much promise, where there is so much hope—where you really can make a difference.”