They come looking for the court of last resort.
Spouses, friends and parents of prisoners enter the imposing University of Washington Law School building asking where to find Innocence Project Northwest.
Growing numbers of these seekers arrive each month as word spreads of the project launched two years ago by attorney Fred Leatherman and UW Law School senior lecturer Jacqueline McMurtrie.
UW law students in the project have since spent more than 1,500 hours on these cases and contributed to the release of seven people wrongly imprisoned in the discredited Wenatchee sex-ring investigation.
“They were not released as a result of a high-priced dream team of criminal attorneys,” says UW Law School Dean Roland Hjorth.
This Friday (April 14) Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, creators of the original Innocence Project in New York City, will join with McMurtrie and other criminal-justice experts at a major conference to review lessons learned from Wenatchee and launch a new nationwide “innocence network” using the UW project as a model.
Scheck and Neufeld, known for their pioneering use of courtroom DNA and for their role in the O.J. Simpson defense, envision a national coalition of law, journalism and graduate schools, public defenders, private attorneys and journalists devoted to reinvestigation, analysis and litigation wherever there has been a miscarriage of justice.
Innocence Project Northwest is among the best examples of this kind of collaboration, according to a report presented at the recent annual meeting of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
A different type of endorsement, of course, comes from the crowd of inmates and their supporters contacting the University of Washington Law School.
“Our phone number is up there in prisons,” said McMurtrie. To handle all these seekers of absolution, the project recently moved to its own office.
In addition to working on 11 Wenatchee sex cases, UW law students respond to inmate requests for information and undergo investigation training. The project accepts a case only if the prisoner claims to have had no involvement in the crime, can’t afford his own attorney and is serving a substantial sentence.
McMurtrie will join Scheck and Neufeld and several Wenatchee-case lawyers at the downtown Seattle conference. Other experts include UW psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, who will discuss “implanted” memories of abuse, and Gail Stygall, UW associate professor of English, who will describe the use of linguistic analysis of confessions.
Entitled “Wenatchee & Beyond,” the daylong Friday event is part of the university’s Continuing Legal Education program, but reporters may attend. It will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Cavanaugh’s Inn on Fifth Avenue, 1415 Fifth Ave.
For more information or to interview participating students, contact McMurtrie at (206) 543-5780 or http://www.uwcle.org/innocence.htm. The Web address of Innocence Project Northwest is http://www.ipnw.org.