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 directorIn 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. Hellman said Murphy comes with both trial and post-conviction experience, having represented death row inmates in a number of states. She also has clinical teaching experience, has organized a clinic and established a case-intake system, and has raised funds. “It will give us a huge advantage in getting our program started and up to speed very quickly to have her,” Hellman said.
Building a foundationHellman himself has been instrumental in raising more than $1.5 million to open and sustain the clinic for its first five years, but fundraising is a never-ending job, he said. “We want to not only sustain it indefinitely but also build it into a robust project that will be able to accommodate more students and free more innocent people,” he said. In addition, Hellman has joined the recently formed Oklahoma Justice Commission, chaired by former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson. The group’s first meeting was in February. Hellman said while it will be the mission of the clinic to look backward at righting wrongful convictions, it will be the job of the justice commission to look forward to make recommendations on how the criminal justice system can be improved to reduce the likelihood that the kinds of mistakes made in the past will be made in the future. OCU’s Law School is taking enrollments from students this spring for the clinic. Enrollment is limited to eight students per semester and is only for third-year law students, Hellman said. “I expect there will be many more students applying for the clinic than there is room for,” Hellman said. “Just about every prospective student that I’ve talked to has mentioned the Innocence Clinic among the reasons they are really hopeful they get admitted to OCU,” he said. Contributing: Staff Writer Diana Baldwin