The Exempt Justice Clinic at Notre Dame Law School, which was founded by a group of students and dozens of White Roses, has received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will build capacity of the clinic to investigate and litigate wrongful convictions.
Notre Dame is one of 18 recipients of DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance grants awarded in late 2021 and the only one in Indiana to receive federal funding. The South Bend school plans to use money to hire a full-time investigator who will work with the clinic staff lawyers and students.
“Having a full-time investigator will greatly enhance our efforts to overturn convictions and regain freedom for our wrongfully convicted clients,” said Jimmy Gurule, director of the clinic, in a press release. “It is essential that we have a dedicated investigator who can go out into the field to interview potential witnesses and help gather credible evidence that could help overturn wrongful convictions.”
The clinic was officially launched in the fall semester of 2020 and continues to generate interest from students. For this spring semester, 12 students enrolled in the clinic for credit and another 23 law students volunteered. Also, undergraduate students help.
Ian McKay, a 2L at Notre Dame Law, described his work at the Exoneration Justice Clinic as “the most important thing” he has done at Notre Dame.
“When you video call with a client and see them on this screen, you realize this isn’t just a case – with facts and a procedural history – it’s the life of someone,” McKay said in a press release. “Someone who grew up with hopes and dreams. Someone who had those hopes stripped from them. Someone who was condemned and dragged into a concrete box and forgotten.
“But there is something we can do to help,” McKay continued. “Often we are our client’s last chance for justice, so the stakes are incredibly high.”
The Exemption Justice Clinic told the DOJ that wrongful convictions are a “serious and systemic problem in Indiana.”
Hearing the story of Keith Cooper being exonerated after serving nine years of a 40-year sentence for an armed robbery he did not commit, Notre Dame students were inspired to help others wrongly convicted. They then joined the effort to exonerate Andrew Royer, who has served 16 years following his wrongful murder conviction which has been described as “the product of gross misconduct by the police and the prosecution”.
Mark Simonitis, a third-year law student, said he decided to apply to the clinic after seeing a presentation on Royer’s exemption. He said he found the job professionally and personally satisfying.
“I can do the work of a real lawyer, whether it’s pleading in court, writing motions or accompanying an investigator to examine crime scenes and talk to witnesses,” Simonitis said in a press release. .
The clinic traces its roots to 2016, when a group of law students decided to reactivate an innocence club that had gone dormant. After recruiting Gurule to be the club’s counselor, the students determined that they first needed to educate the public about wrongful convictions. So, then-law student Tia Paulette bought dozens of white roses and placed them in the Law School Commons along with cards containing facts about current wrongful conviction cases.
Since then, Gurule has continued to mentor students, and the clinic’s team has grown to include Elliott Slosar, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, who is an adjunct professor. Additionally, Kevin Murphy, a 2014 NDLS graduate, returned to being the clinic’s first staff attorney after working as an associate at Jenner & Block in Chicago, and Nikolai Stieglitz, a 2021 NDLS graduate, is the first third-year fellow. clinic cycle.
Notre Dame Law School Dean G. Marcus Cole said he viewed the DOJ grant as an indication of the clinic’s impact, even in its first year of operation.
“The fact that the US Department of Justice has confidence in this new clinic is a testament to Professor Gurule’s leadership and the results that Exoneration Justice Clinic lawyers and students have achieved in such a short time,” Cole said in a statement. Press release.