“Justice is not postponed,” the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his 1841 essay “Compensation.” But the stack of handwritten letters on Jamie Lau’s desk says otherwise.

Lau, a professor at Duke University School of Law, attributes the influx of mail to national publicity surrounding the exoneration of Ronnie Long more than a year ago.

“It’s had a big impact,” Lau says. “The mail all begins, ‘After reading about Mr. Long’s case in Prison [Legal] News, I’m writing to you about my case.’”

Screening handwritten letters from North Carolina inmates is the first stage of an arduous process that sometimes takes decades. It begins with a Duke Law student assessing the credibility of an inmate’s claim of innocence, then sending out a questionnaire to the letter’s author to gather more information about their case. After they get the completed questionnaire back, Duke Law students participating in the Innocence Project, a national network often based in law schools, consult with their cohorts before referring cases to the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic.

Attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the Innocence Project in 1992 at Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Over the past three decades, the flagship Innocence Project has achieved 375 DNA exonerations. Since 1989, there have been close to 3,000 exonerations of innocent individuals nationally, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Innocence Projects not directly affiliated with the nonprofit Scheck and Neufeld founded have achieved the majority of those exonerations.

According to the American Association of Law Libraries website, there are 68 innocence organizations in the United States. In North Carolina, the NC Center on Actual Innocence, Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and Wake Forest University’s Innocence and Justice Clinic are part of the Innocence Network. But students in clinics at several other North Carolina law schools are also learning invaluable lessons about ensuring justice for those entangled in the criminal justice system, whether or not they’re working on cases directly.

Innocence Projects in North Carolina

James E. Coleman Jr. has served as director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke since its inception in 2007. Back then, Coleman and now-retired Duke Law professor Theresa Newman advised students participating in the Innocence Project. In 2001, Coleman and Newman were instrumental in creating the NC Center on Actual Innocence—a collaborative effort between Duke University and UNC–Chapel Hill.

The purpose of the NC Center was to prevent duplicate efforts by law-school-based Innocence Projects and to serve as a central hub for all claims of innocence made by incarcerated individuals in North Carolina’s prison system.

Duke Law relied on the NC Center for 20 years to perform the initial screening of letters from inmates, until this past spring. Now, Duke Law students screen all the letters with claims of innocence.

The NC Center on Actual Innocence has evolved over the past two decades, from being a clearinghouse for claims of innocence to performing reinvestigations and offering legal representation to inmates.

“It actually goes back to what we intended in the beginning, in that the [NC] Center would be involved with the students in screening cases and doing a preliminary review,” Coleman says.

Rich Rosen, a retired UNC law professor, and Pete Weitzel, a former UNC journalism professor, worked with Coleman and Newman to establish the center.

Rosen characterizes its evolution as inevitable and necessary given the prevalence of wrongful convictions. He argues there is value in both the law schools’ and the center’s approaches to reinvestigating cold cases and filing legal appeals on behalf of clients.

Coleman lauds the center’s executive director, Christine Mumma, for the results she and her staff of attorneys have achieved in securing exonerations.

“But as a result of her basically doing investigations and representations, we don’t have someone who is doing the screening and working with our students on that,” says Coleman.

Rosen says that now, there are two different models of innocence work in North Carolina.

“The law school model is really good,” he says. “I also think the Center model is really good. Frankly, there’s enough need out there for all the different ones to have an impact.”

Six law schools in North Carolina have Innocence Projects—Duke, UNC-CH, NC Central University, Campbell University, Elon University, and Wake Forest. However, only Duke and Wake Forest support law school clinics that directly address wrongful convictions and so are officially part of the national Innocence Network. For Lau and Coleman, the immersive experience helps achieve Duke’s overarching vision of shaping the next generation of lawyers.

“I hope that we are training the lawyers who will replace us eventually,” Coleman says. “I hope that the clinic will continue as long as there are people who are wrongfully convicted in prisons in North Carolina. The work and the skills that we develop will be important in the practice of law into the foreseeable future.”

The case of Dontae Sharpe

There may be no better example of the law school model as a means to overturn a wrongful conviction than the case of Dontae Sharpe. In 1995, a Pitt County jury convicted Sharpe of the murder of George Radcliffe in an incident police described as a drug deal gone bad.

In 2010, Caitlin Swain was a second-year law student at Duke working in a leadership position at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. Sharpe’s case captured her attention as she began reading about the circumstances surrounding the police investigation and subsequent prosecution.

Joined by law school colleague Nakita Cuttino, Swain first met with Sharpe at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington that spring. The experience confirmed Swain’s belief that Sharpe had been railroaded by the criminal justice system.

“What [Sharpe] told me and [Cuttino] at the time was ‘I don’t want you all to be sad or disappointed if you can’t get justice, because there’s so many people who have come before you, and I know they’ve all tried their best,’” Swain recalls. “‘But I’ve given up on there being justice in this justice system.’”

Sharpe had good reason to feel discouraged. After he won his 2009 appeal, the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office fought a lower-court decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ultimately ruled in favor of the state. It appeared all was lost, but a visit from the two Duke Law students marked a turning point in Sharpe’s quest for justice.

“I was at a low point in my life at that time,” Sharpe recalls. “But they came and that was like an answer to my prayers.”

Swain and Cuttino began their reinvestigation in earnest after that initial face-to-face meeting with Sharpe.

“There was a lot of fear and wariness among many people in Greenville who had tried to tell the truth about this case in the past, and one of the things that was important to [Cuttino] and I was to try to start fresh in this investigation,” Swain recalls.

Persistence ultimately paid off as Swain and Cuttino went door-to-door in Sharpe’s old neighborhood to try to persuade residents with information about the case to come forward. The breakthrough moment occurred when Charlene Johnson, the state’s primary eyewitness at Sharpe’s trial, agreed to speak with them.

Johnson was 13 years old when she implicated Sharpe in Radcliffe’s murder, but within a few months of Sharpe’s conviction, Johnson recanted her testimony. No forensic evidence ever linked Sharpe to the crime scene.

Swain recalls joining Newman, the clinic’s then codirector and Sharpe’s attorney as of 2010, to visit Sharpe in prison regularly over the course of nine years as his appeals wound through the system. Coleman says the fact Swain continued to join Newman, who advised Duke Law students in the clinic until her retirement in 2021, on those visits reflects the enduring strength of the program.

“All of our cases are litigated by the clinic as a team,” Coleman says. “Although each case has a lead counsel, [Newman], [Lau], and I play active roles in all of the exonerations. We don’t have any case in which that has not been true.”

Throughout Sharpe’s appeals, Swain says she never lost hope, and ultimately her hope was rewarded. On August 22, 2019, a superior court judge in Pitt County granted Sharpe’s motion for appropriate relief, vacating his 1995 conviction. In November, Governor Roy Cooper granted Sharpe an official pardon of innocence, meaning Sharpe is entitled to seek compensation from the state for wrongful incarceration.

Over the course of 11 years, Swain and Sharpe formed a strong bond, which Swain credits as her inspiration for launching Forward Justice, a nonprofit that works with social justice organizations, coalitions, and networks to pursue criminal justice reform. She hired Sharpe as the nonprofit’s first Returning in Service and Excellence leadership fellow.

“I now get to go to work with my first client, which is a phenomenal, incredible outcome,” Swain says.

Two different approaches

Sharpe’s case is one of 10 exonerations the Wrongful Convictions Clinic has achieved over the course of its 14-year history. The NC Center on Actual Innocence has achieved eight exonerations in its 20-year history, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Mumma says the NC Center on Actual Innocence maintains a close working relationship with the law schools at UNC-CH, NCCU, Campbell, and Elon, but students don’t take active roles in reinvestigating criminal cases, crafting legal briefs on behalf of the center’s clients, or doing active casework.

“I often have to make the decision not to take a case forward despite the fact that I feel strongly that the inmate has a credible claim of innocence and will likely die in prison,” Mumma says. “I also make a decision to take cases forward where there is no clear avenue for new evidence but there may be ineffective assistance of counsel that [led] to a wrongful conviction. Those are not decisions law students are equipped to make.”

Mark Rabil, director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest School of Law, takes a different approach with his law students. Rabil, who is acclaimed for securing the freedom of Darryl Hunt in 2004, has officially led the clinic as its full-time director since 2013.

Wake Forest law students review and investigate North Carolina inmates’ claims of innocence and pursue legal avenues for exoneration and release. Students work closely with Rabil and attorney Emily Thornton to screen, evaluate, and litigate innocence cases. The Innocence and Justice Clinic has screened cases for many years rather than relying on the NC Center on Actual Innocence, Rabil says.

“We currently have about 20 cases with pending motions or litigation,” Rabil says. “We have litigated cases at every level, from NC superior courts to NC appellate courts to federal district court and on to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Student participation in the appeals process on behalf of the clinic’s clients is a hallmark of the Wake Forest program. In 2019, Raquel Macgregor, a Wake law student, represented John Robert Hayes—a Winston-Salem man convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in 1994—before the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. The appeal was denied, but Rabil and Thornton recently filed a motion to order new forensic and DNA testing in Hayes’s case.

Rabil says demand from North Carolina inmates with legitimate claims of innocence far outstrips the supply of law students participating in clinics at Wake Forest and Duke, so at times, it feels like they’re only scratching the surface. At Wake Forest, Rabil says, there’s currently a two-year wait list for case screenings. About 500 cases are in various stages of review or litigation, Rabil says, and the clinic has had to reject “well over 2,000 cases.”

But the effort is clearly worth it.

“In the last year, we have been successful in winning release for two of our innocent clients through parole,” Rabil says. “One person had been incarcerated for 42 years and the other for 29 years.”

Righting a horrible wrong

Marissa Bluestine helped achieve 17 exonerations during her 10 years as director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Bluestine, now assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, cited a 2018 study authored by her Penn colleague criminologist Charles Loeffler as even more evidence of the urgent need for criminal justice reform. The study estimated that 6 percent of incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania state prisons are innocent.

Extrapolating based on the current U.S. prison population, Loeffler’s findings indicate that roughly 108,000 innocent people are currently sitting behind bars. Altering public perception about the issue of wrongful convictions is the key to bringing forth change, Bluestine says.

“If overnight, somehow we were able to identify all 4,500 people in Pennsylvania who were wrongly convicted or innocent and they all walked out of prison on the same day, there would be an outcry—just outcry and outrage of ‘We’ve got to fix this,’” she says.

Law school clinics are not the only effective approach to the issue of wrongful convictions, but educating future lawyers on the flaws inherent in the system is vital, Bluestine adds.

“It is incumbent upon us as professors and practitioners to be able to ensure that students who are in law school now understand these issues of wrongful convictions and how we’ve gotten them and how we kind of work our way around them,” Bluestine says.

Shoshana Silverstein screened the 2006 HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt, which chronicles Hunt’s 19-year fight for justice, during Duke Law School orientation in 2017. Silverstein learned of Hunt’s case when he died by suicide in March 2016.

“The video ended, we all looked around, and we were all in a little bit of shock at how wrong the system can go,” Silverstein recalls. After participating in the Duke Law Innocence Project in her first year of law school, Silverstein joined the Wrongful Convictions Clinic in 2018. That’s when she was introduced to Ronnie Long’s case.

On October 1, 1976, Long, a Black man, was convicted of sexual assault, burglary, and unlawful entry by an all-white jury in Cabarrus County. He was sentenced to life in prison but steadfastly maintained his innocence.

Duke Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed Long’s third petition for a writ of habeas corpus—a legal recourse through which an inmate can report an unlawful imprisonment before a court—in 2016, which was ultimately denied by a federal magistrate. In January 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Long’s appeal of the magistrate’s decision by a 2-1 vote.

Silverstein recalls receiving the news.

“I was standing in line at the grocery store and I got the email,” Silverstein recalls. “I began reading about what we were going to do.”

Lau and his students would pursue a very narrow legal avenue—en banc review—in which a petitioner requests a rehearing before the full panel of judges.

Cutting her winter break short, Silverstein flew back to North Carolina the next day. Sitting in airports, Silverstein strategized on the phone with law school colleagues about how they would craft a legal appeal in roughly two weeks.

On May 7, 2020, Lau argued Long’s case before the Fourth Circuit. Silverstein recalls feeling a wave of emotions as she listened in her kitchen in Vermont to Lau’s live presentation on the court’s website.

“It was a combination of nerves and confidence,” she says. “I just remember feeling in that moment that bit of hope taking over the nerves and saying, ‘The [judges] understand it. We have a chance here. We have a real chance to right a horrible wrong that has just continued on for decades.’”

On August 24, 2020, the court reversed the dismissal of Long’s habeas petition by a vote of 9-6. Three days later, Long was a free man, and once again Silverstein was overcome with emotion.

“I was just standing in the kitchen shaking,” she recalls. “It really seemed or felt at times impossible, so to have it succeed—again especially in that time when the world seemed like everything was going wrong—to have this go right was the best thing that could possibly happen to me or to our team.”

Today, Silverstein works as an assistant district attorney for the City of Philadelphia. She likens her role to that of her defense team’s adversary in the Long case—the NC Attorney General’s Office.

“I am now very much a part of the system,” Silverstein says. “I decided to take up the role of the attorney who was opposite us in the [Long] case to try to create the change that I would hope they create.”

Ministers of justice

Mumma, Rabil, and Coleman may disagree on the best model for achieving exonerations of wrongfully incarcerated individuals, but they are in accord in one respect: they point to the NC Attorney General’s Office as the greatest impediment to real reform.

Lau speculates state law enforcement officials irrationally fear that admitting the criminal justice system is deeply flawed, and miscarriages of justice do occur, will somehow make it harder for them to obtain convictions in the future. Lau argues there’s a flip side to that coin—specifically, if state attorneys general and local DAs cooperated with law school clinics and other innocence organizations to get to the truth in actual innocence cases, it would inspire greater confidence in the system.

Lau addressed the issue directly during oral arguments in the Long case before the Fourth Circuit. Citing overwhelming evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the original investigation, Lau called upon NC Attorney General Josh Stein’s office to simply acknowledge the facts of the case.

“If the state was interested in justice—this is a problem with the culture of the attorney general’s office in North Carolina,” Lau told the 15-judge panel. “If it was interested in justice, it would’ve [begun] an investigation into the conduct of these [police] officers to determine what went wrong here.”

Ultimately, leadership matters when it comes to criminal justice reform, Lau says.

“We’ve long maintained that while the attorney general’s office has a duty to represent the state in these cases, its duty to represent the case is not limited to fighting to defend the conviction against all evidence that’s presented to it,” Lau adds.

Stein’s press secretary Nazneen Ahmed pushed back on Lau’s contention that the state Department of Justice isn’t interested in seeking the truth in cases of documented misconduct by police and prosecutors but rather upholds convictions at all costs.

“As attorney general and co-chair of the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, Attorney General Stein has supported several recommendations to create a fairer criminal justice system, including recommending that North Carolina establish and fund an independent Conviction Integrity Unit and improving policing practices and enhancing accountability for law enforcement officers,” Ahmed said in a statement.

But Lau and Coleman have long lamented the lack of cooperation from local district attorneys’ offices and the state’s justice department in their reinvestigations of cases where there is a legitimate claim of innocence

“There is a space where we could be working together both with prosecution and with law enforcement which would provide greater confidence to the public at large that their interest is in doing right in these cases and is not in protecting people who have done wrong in these cases,” Lau says.

Coleman says his greatest hope is that the young attorneys graduating from law schools across the nation will ultimately transform the criminal justice system, whether they pursue criminal law or not.

“I want them to go out there and be ambassadors for justice in the criminal justice system,” Coleman says.

But in the meantime, real reform is needed if ministers of justice like the state’s attorneys general expect to maintain public confidence in the system, Coleman argues.

“What happens eventually is that people do not accept the system as being legitimate, and when they don’t accept the system as being legitimate you will get juries drawn from those communities that won’t give a damn about whether they’re going to let a person go who committed a crime,” he says. “Eventually, you’re going to lose them as people who support the system. And if we do that, then we are all in serious trouble.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Nakita Cuttino’s first name.

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