Denver Innocence Project
The Denver Innocence Project is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization dedicated to providing legal services to free innocent people and to exonerate the wrongfully convicted in the state of Colorado. The Denver Innocence Project also seeks criminal reform by changing the criminal justice system and its policies to prevent future injustices and wrongful convictions.
How many innocent people are there in Colorado prisons?
According to the national chapter of the New York based Innocence Project, “we will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent”. As of January 2016, there are currently 17,592 people in prison in the state of Colorado. By applying the national percentage estimates to Colorado, that would mean that between 405 – 880 people in Colorado prisons are innocent. Therefore, if only 1% of Colorado prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 175 people in prison are innocent. Even if just one single person is innocent, and serving time for a crime they did not commit – that is one too many!
How is the Denver Innocence Project related to the Innocence Project?
The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization that uses DNA testing and other post-conviction avenues to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project also seeks to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. According to the Innocence Project's website, "Since 1989, 333 people in 37 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing. The Innocence Project was involved in 177 of those 333 DNA exonerations. Others were helped by Innocence Network organizations, private attorneys and by pro se defendants in a few instances."
The Denver Innocence Project is in the process of becoming a member of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of independent organizations working to overturn wrongful convictions and improve the criminal justice system. There are nearly 70 independent organizations around the world who are involved in the Innocence Network. The organizations vary in size, scope, and criteria for case acceptance, but all coordinate to share information and expertise. For a list of Innocence Network members, please visit the Network’s website at: innocencenetwork.org/members. The Innocence Network is not a legal entity, and all of its members are independent from one another.
How is the Denver Innocence Project funded?
The Denver Innocence Project is a tax exempt organization under the Internal Revenue Service Act, Section 501(c)(3). Our Tax ID number is 81-3487444. We plan to be funded through: (1) fundraising events, such as our annual banquet gala dinner, benefit concerts, an annual wrongful conviction documentary film festival, and an annual golf tournament; (2) government and foundation grants; and (3) private and corporate donations made individually at an event, through the mail, or through our website. If you would like to make a donation, please visit us here.
How does DIP decide who to represent?
After an application has been accepted by meeting our initial criteria, we gather case documents, including trial transcripts, police reports, lab reports, and appellate briefs. These documents are thoroughly reviewed and indexed by volunteer attorneys and law students to create a full picture of what happened in a particular case. Once this screening review is completed and the results are evaluated by our legal staff, we determine whether we might be able to uncover new evidence through investigation, such as evidence that could be submitted for DNA testing, recantations, prosecutorial misconduct, etc... We conduct a thorough fact investigation, and if we can find a way to prove innocence, we agree to represent the applicant in court and advocate for their exoneration.
How do I ask the Denver Innocence Project to help with a particular case?
The Denver Innocence Project does not limit its review process to DNA cases. DIP reviews cases where there is evidence of actual innocence. Such cases may involve: witness recantations, eyewitness misidentification, coerced confessions, changes in science (junk science, shaken baby syndrome, bite mark evidence, etc.), government misconduct, or ineffective assistance of counsel, etc...
We only accept cases where:
1. The applicant is claiming actual innocence, in other words, that he/she did not participate in the crime. Therefore, we will not represent an individual who was convicted of an act of conspiracy or accessory;
2. The applicant was convicted in Colorado;
3. The applicant is not currently represented by an attorney;
4. The applicant has already had a trial and appeal adjudicated.
How can I donate to the Denver Innocence Project?
You can make an online donation to DIP here, or, if you would like to donate by mail, please contact email@example.com. The Denver Innocence Project is a tax exempt organization under the Internal Revenue Service Act, Section 501(c)(3). Our Tax ID number is 81-3487444.
Volunteer for DIP
There are several ways you can volunteer for the Denver Innocence Project.
We are seeking experienced post conviction relief attorneys with appellate experience in 35(c) and habeas corpus petitions.
We are currently seeking attorneys and law school students to write memorandums of complex areas of law, and to write case transcript summaries.
We are also seeking individuals who would like to volunteer at our various fundraising events.
We are looking for accountants to help assist with our bookkeeping as well as our annual tax returns.
If you would like to volunteer with DIP, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your qualifications and how you would like to help.
Other ways you can help DIP
There are many ways that you can help.
You can make an online donation to DIP here.
We are currently seeking donated or substantially discounted office space, preferably in the downtown Denver area or near the University of Denver.
You can also help by donating new or used office equipment and furniture, such as computers, monitors, filing cabinets, desks, etc..
We are currently seeking local and national touring musicians who would be interested in performing a benefit concert, or performing at our annual banquet gala dinner.
We are seeking venues to donate space for fundraising events.
Why does DIP use law school students?
Post-conviction innocence work is incredibly challenging and an uphill battle – it is extremely rare for the State to overturn murder and life sentence convictions and open themselves up to judgments for wrongful convictions, potentially worth millions. Even attorneys with many years of experience can find post-conviction cases extremely challenging and difficult. So you may be asking yourself…. why rely on law school students to conduct the majority of the heavy lifting in these extremely complex cases? In short, if not law students, then who?
Organizations, like the Denver Innocence Project, are often an absolute last resort for freedom for these inmates, therefore making the outcome of the students' work extremely important. Most of these inmates have already exhausted most of their avenues for exoneration because they have already filed appeals at every level. These cases are often very expensive to litigate, making it difficult for the wrongfully convicted to find legal representation. Generally, clients have only one more chance to secure their freedom, which makes organizations such as the Denver Innocence Project so important.
What the Denver Innocence Project does, is educate students to use their skills and the law to fulfill the organization’s mission of seeking the release of the wrongfully convicted. Because these cases are real, and so much is dependent upon the work of the law students, the students get a true sense of how much their individual advocacy work matters. From an early stage in their legal career, they will realize the tremendous impact their work can have on the lives of others, thus making their pro bono work incredibly rewarding.
The Process - volunteer attorneys and law school students role in the Denver Innocence Project
The following is a brief analysis of what the volunteer attorneys and law students would actually be doing and the roles they would assume with the Denver Innocence Project.
Step One: Intake / Case Screening - After word reaches the prisons that Colorado has established a new Innocence Project, it is anticipated that the organization will receive hundreds of letters requesting assistance. The first step is for students to filter out claims of innocence, and to determine whether the facts of the case are within the scope of the organization’s mission.
When replying to the large amounts of letters for requests for assistance, we will have several letters of rejection templates to use, such as:
- “The Denver Innocence Project only takes on cases that were tried in Colorado, therefore since your case was tried in ________ we cannot take on your case. Attached is the contact information for the Innocence Project or Innocence Organization that covers your geographic area.
- “Because innocence cases often take several years to prepare, and you only have ____ years left on your sentence, we cannot take on your case due to the overwhelming amounts of requests for representation that the DIP receives.”
- “The Denver Innocence Project only takes on clients who are “factually innocent”. Although you claim you are not guilty of the principal crime, you would still be guilty under conspiracy laws, therefore we cannot take on your case.”
- “The Denver Innocence Project only takes on cases that have gone to trial and have been appealed. Since your case has not yet been appealed, we cannot take on your case at this time.”
Every letter received must be entered into our Clio database management computer program so we do not waste time reviewing cases that have previously been rejected. Cases can be searched by the inmates name and by Department of Corrections (DOC) number.
If the student feels that the case does fit the criteria of the mission of the Denver Innocence Project, the student will obtain a copy of the appellate brief from the state court, and create a folder for further review by the Program Director.
Step Two: Initial Case Review - The Program Director will read the statement of facts from the appellate brief to ensure that the case meets the criteria of the organization. If the Director feels that it is a potential DIP case, the Director will assign the case folder to an individual student with tasks, such as: requesting the student to write to the inmate and ask if there is new evidence, write a memo for the Program Director on complex issues, contact witnesses, etc..
Step Three: Determination of Success – Students will be put into groups, and meet with the Program Director to determine if there is even an avenue for relief under the circumstances and the procedural case history. Some of the questions that will be reviewed may include: Are there any avenues for relief that have yet to be exhausted? Is there substantial new evidence that was not known at time of trial, nor could have been known? Is there a statute of limitations to file a particular motion or petition on the specific conviction?
Step Four: Case Summary Review – For cases that make it to this step, students will be asked to write case summaries to assist the eventual attorney for the case. These case files can be tens of thousands of pages, so these case summaries the students will draft for the eventual attorney will be extremely instrumental. Students will also be requested to write summaries of contrasting testimonies of witnesses through the various hearings (trial, appeal, co-defendant’s trials, etc...)
Step Five: Investigation and Evidence Gathering – Students will be requested to gather relevant documents, such as police reports, criminal history reports of various witnesses, medical reports, copies of property deeds, etc.. Students will also contact both existing and new witnesses by telephone to try to gather new evidence.
Step Six: Strategy – Students will meet with an experienced post-conviction relief attorney to discuss possible avenues of relief. Together, they will decide whether getting the media involved will be beneficial to the defendant's case, or would be a hindrance.
Step Seven: Motion Drafting – Under the supervision of an attorney, students with exceptional legal writing skills may be asked to draft various motions, including, but not limited to: requests to test DNA, petitions of habeas corpus, motions of ineffective counsel. In most cases, DIP will seek an experienced post conviction relief attorney in the community to draft and file these motions.
Step Eight: Trial Prep – If the defendant is granted a new trial, students will assist the attorney in prepping for the trial. This may include drafting motions to exclude evidence, as well as drafting direct and cross examination questions for the attorney, and jury questions.
Step Nine: Trial Advisors – During the actual trial, some law school students who have been certified by the Colorado Supreme Court - Office of Attorney Registration, pursuant Rule 205.7, may be granted special permission to actually sit at the defense counsel’s table during the re-trial as an “advisor to trial.” In most high profile cases, the prosecution is allowed an advisory witness, usually the lead detective in the case, to advise the prosecution team during trial. Likewise, the defense is usually allowed to have at least one advisor during trial. It would make sense to use the DIP student member who is most familiar with the case.
Eventual Attorney for the Case
The attorney of the case will volunteer his or her service when drafting the motion for relief. If the motion is granted, and a new trial is ordered, the attorney will seek to be appointed as member of the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (ADC), pursuant to §21-2-101, C.R.S. (Senate Bill 96-205), and have the state pay for his or her legal service.
Benefits law school students will receive when volunteering with the DIP
Pro-Bono work in general can be incredibly rewarding. Participation in the Denver Innocence Project can have an advantageous impact on curricular enrichment. Innocence work requires careful planning, diligent effort, and sophisticated legal analysis. Even experienced litigators, who have spent years doing criminal defense work, experience a learning curve when they work on wrongful conviction cases.
Practical training makes graduates more practice ready. There’s that old saying, "Law school teaches students how to think like a lawyer – not how to be a lawyer". What better way is there to learn how to be a lawyer than to work on real high profile cases? There are certain programs, like Moot Court and Trial Practice, that assist students in how to be a lawyer – but the Denver Innocence Project allows students a chance to work on real cases, with real clients, with real witnesses, with real investigators, with real family members, and with real government agencies.
According to a National Jurist article "Best Schools for Practical Training," there is currently a shift in the competitive legal market. "Law firms don’t want to invest the money to train law graduates. Firms are facing pressure from clients and don't want to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for a green attorney and possibly shoddy legal work. Students need to walk out of school with the necessary skills to be marketable, and more practice ready. Making students more practice-ready also provides tools to start their own practices should they find the job market grim."
Skills law students will acquire from participation in DIP that will make them 'practice ready'
Organization and Time-Managing Skills. In general, the files of these types of cases are enormous and can be tens of thousands of pages long. The case file generally includes the original trial, the direct appeal, the appeal, motions, discovery, etc… In addition, often it is necessary to review testimony of several co-defendants files which would include their original trial, appeal, motions, etc… Students under the supervision of the Program Director will be introduced to methods of case organization that will be of the utmost importance in their post-graduation career as an attorney. Furthermore, because these cases can last several years, students will have to ensure that their work is organized in such a fashion as to ensure an efficient transition for subsequent students and attorneys that may takeover their cases.
Record Gathering. Students will be responsible for obtaining case documents, records, and transcripts, from municipal courts, county courts, and state appellate courts. They may also have to request police reports, obtain Colorado Bureau of Investigation criminal history reports, and Department of Correction case files. In addition, they may be asked to draft and submit FOIA requests.
Critical Legal Analysis. Students will have to use their skills and the knowledge of the law in determining the appropriate avenue for relief, including application of rules of evidence, criminal procedure laws (i.e., statute of limitations).
Research Skills. At the request of the Program Director, students may be responsible for drafting memos on complex areas of law.
Legal Writing. In addition to writing memorandums, students may be requested to draft motions for discovery, motions to exclude evidence, motions to produce, etc.. At the direction of the staff attorney, students may be requested to draft a petition of habeas corpus or 35(c) ineffective counsel motion.
Investigative Skills. A large part of the students' work at the Innocence Project will be interviewing prior witnesses and potential new witnesses in order to unearth new evidence to help grant a new trial. These cases are often many years old, so students will have to utilize online people-finding programs (like Lexis, Intelius, Spokeo), as well as work with private investigators to find current contact information for these witnesses.
Networking. Students will sharpen their networking skills by reaching out to the community and seeking private investigators and attorneys to work on a bro bono basis. Students will also be responsible for fundraising.
Advisement of Clients, Court Appearances, and Assisting Attorney in Litigation. Law School students who are certified by the Colorado Supreme Court - Office of Attorney Registration, pursuant to Rule 205.7, may “be authorized to advise clients on legal matters and appear in any court” where a law school maintains a legal aid clinic where poor or legally underserved persons receive legal advice and services.
Interviewing Skills. Denver Innocence Project members will be expected to interview existing witnesses, and potential new witnesses. Witnesses will not always be forthcoming, so students will learn ways to be strategic in seeking new information. Students will be expected to write summaries of the interview as part of the case file.
Communication Skills. Students will be expected to communicate with the client (by making personal visits to the prison), prior counsel, investigators, expert witnesses, and the client’s family. Some of these family members will have a lot to say considering that their relative has been wrongfully imprisoned for many years; therefore students will have to find a balance between allocating time speaking with family members, as well as time spent on their law school studies and other DIP case work. Likewise, the client is often lonely and eager to speak to someone new on the outside, such as law students working on their case. Therefore, law school students will have to find a balance when allocating time speaking with the client without offending him or her.