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Oklahoma City University Law School prepares to open Innocence Clinic

BY TRICIA PEMBERTON Published: April 24, 2011
Oklahoma City University Law School Dean Lawrence K. Hellman is working tirelessly to open the Oklahoma Innocence Clinic this fall.

He’s helped law school faculty identify and hire a new director for the clinic, and in June he will retire as dean of the law school so he can turn most of his energy to fundraising for the clinic.

The Innocence Clinic, one of 50 in the nation, will work to identify and overturn wrongful convictions in the state. It is part of the national Innocence Project, a nonprofit litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“This is something everyone can feel good about getting behind,” Hellman said. “No one wants an innocent person to be in prison. That includes prosecutors and defenders alike.

Oklahoma, with 18 wrongful convictions, is among the top 10 states in the nation in known wrongful convictions of innocent people, Madeline deLone, executive director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said during a recent visit to Oklahoma City.

She said those wrongfully convicted spent an average of 13 years in prison, with some incarcerated as long as 32 years.

Hellman said it’s been documented that 2.3 percent of the 7,534 people who were convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. between 1973 and 2004 subsequently have been found to be innocent. That figure is just for death penalty cases. If the same math were to apply to noncapital cases, he said, that would mean 53,000 of the 2.3 million people currently in prison in the U.S. are actually innocent.

New director

In March, the law school announced Tiffany Murphy had been hired as director of the state clinic. Murphy previously was legal director for the Midwestern Innocence Project in Kansas City, and a faculty member of the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Hellman first met Murphy in 2008 when he was in the beginning stages of planning for an Innocence Clinic at OCU.

“I was very impressed with her,” he said.