A Minnesota organization dedicated to overturning the convictions of the wrongfully imprisoned is expanding its operations and moving its headquarters to the University of Minnesota Law School.
Staff members of the Innocence Project of Minnesota were unpacking boxes last week and getting used to their new suite at Mondale Hall in Minneapolis. The law school is providing space for the organization, rent-free.
Prof. Garry Jenkins, the law school’s dean, said that he was thrilled by the decision of the Innocence Project to move in, calling it “one of our region’s most acclaimed public interest law organizations.”
The Innocence Project was previously headquartered at Hamline University School of Law. But the project was running out of space there. When that school merged with the William Mitchell College of Law in 2015, Hamline moved its operations to the former William Mitchell campus, so it did not make much sense for the project to maintain its offices at Hamline, said Innocence Project Executive Director Sara Jones.
However, the Innocence Project will continue to draw on law students from Mitchell Hamline to work on cases and will continue its partnership on criminal justice issues with Hamline’s Center for Justice and Law, a consortium of professors representing different programs at Hamline, Jones said.
Last fall the Innocence Project received a grant from the Lakeshore Foundation to support the geographic expansion to North Dakota and South Dakota. Jones said the group has recently hired a new staff attorney and will probably hire another to take on cases from the two states — as well as additional cases in Minnesota.
Jones said she anticipated that moving operations to the U will increase the amount of work for the project by the U’s students and faculty both in research and policy. She said the project will benefit from the school’s expertise in criminal law.
A total of 56 U students have worked on cases for the Innocence Project since 2005, as has an equal number from Hamline, now Mitchell Hamline, said Julie Jonas, the organization’s legal director. The new office suite will provide more workspace for students.
The Innocence Project is “one of these organizations in society that fixes things that have gone wrong, and when they do it, it is extremely energizing for our entire profession,” said Laura Thomas, law clinic director at the U Law School. “We want to hear about exonerees, we want to hear about miscarriages of justice being corrected. … There is excitement to have a committed organization like that housed in our public Law School.”
Jenkins said that having the Innocence Project at the U fits in with a key objective to make it one of the go-to law schools in the country for students interested in public interest law. The U also operates the Binger Center for New Americans, which helps individuals with asylum rights, detainee rights and other litigation. The school also offers a fellowship for up to 12 third-year students to work with public interest or government agencies, which then offer them a guaranteed position when they graduate.
Nationally, the Innocence Project has freed 2,400 people, said Jonas. Since its launch in Minnesota in 2001, it has helped free five people from prison, said Jonas. Among the cases cited on its website are Michael Hansen, who was exonerated after he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his 3-year-old daughter; and Sherman Townsend, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a home invasion but was eventually released after a neighbor, who falsely implicated him, confessed to the crime.
Selecting cases is an elaborate process. The Minnesota project gets about 300 requests for help every year. Those cases are then screened to determine whether they meet the project’s criteria, and then there is further investigation to decide which ones the project will take on for litigation.
The Innocence Project in Minnesota is currently working to exonerate seven people.
“Each case can take years and thousands of hours of research and investigation,” Jones said.