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Litigation Journal

Summer 2023 | Legitimacy

Innocence Clinics and the Integrity of the Legal System

Imran Syed and Elizabeth Cole


  • Innocence clinics play a key role in growing the integrity of the criminal legal system.
  • Justice, integrity, and legitimacy cannot operate only on an individual level.
  • Upholding this integrity is dependent on teaching, as much as on winning cases.
Innocence Clinics and the Integrity of the Legal System Stock

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The job of a clinical instructor in a law school has always comprised two key components: teaching and litigation. The latter of those seems to get all the attention. Headlines across the country have described in recent years how the work of innocence clinics, like ours at the University of Michigan Law School, have restored the freedom of hundreds of wrongfully convicted people. These are incredible stories, of course, but the true significance of our work is apparent only upon looking past the headlines that our cases often make.

If innocence clinics like ours are to have any meaningful impact in upholding integrity in the criminal legal system, this accomplishment is far more dependent on the impact of the quieter and more consistent side of our jobs: our teaching.

Nevertheless, the story does begin with the most visible part of our work: our cases. Speaking at public events about the monumental victories achieved by the international network of innocence litigators is always fun. We tend to receive the nicest compliments.

“You’re doing God’s work” is a fairly frequent one—especially from politicians and judges.

“How meaningful that work must be for you and your students!”

These compliments are always welcome; praise isn’t the norm in litigation. But as nice as the compliments are from most members of the public and the legal profession, lawyers who work in innocence clinics actually want nothing more than to hear this one ultimate compliment: “You can quit now. You are no longer needed.”

As we certainly realize, innocence litigation is a small subset of the criminal law world. The full context and reality of the criminal legal system is far larger. The popular and media interest is usually directed toward the work of innocence clinics, with little thought given to the thousands of others whose fates are decided by the system each day. Where innocence clinic lawyers are often told they do God’s work, public defenders just as often are asked, “How can you defend those people?!”—with equal passion and sincerity.

But there is little difference between what the public may regard as God’s work and what the public regards as the work of . . . that other supernatural being (the bad one). We continue to be surprised about how little that fact is understood.

The work of innocence clinics—exonerating and reclaiming the freedom of people who have spent years or decades in prison for crimes they did not commit—is important, of course. It restores liberty to the wrongfully convicted person and returns that person to family and society. On an individual level, it is hard to imagine a more meaningful act of justice.

But justice doesn’t just work on an individual level. That is the reason why the law hews so closely to precedent: Where principles and rules are created to effectuate justice in one case, others should abide by them to achieve justice overall. This fact has been lost in the conversation on innocence clinics.

The Story of David Gavitt

It is important, of course, that people are moved by stories like that of former Michigan Innocence Clinic client David Gavitt—an innocent Michigan man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and children and spent 26 years in prison before his exoneration. But the full story is not just David and his freedom. Instead, the focus should be on why that egregious miscarriage of justice happened and what can be done to ensure that it does not happen again.

David, his wife, and his two infant daughters were asleep when a fire broke out in the living room of their home in Ionia, Michigan, on March 9, 1985. David woke to the sound of his dog scratching at the bedroom door and noticed smoke. Realizing that the house was on fire, David yelled to rouse his wife and told her to get the children, while he went to investigate the fire and see what path they could take to escape. But David could not have anticipated how quickly the flames and smoke would spread, and he suddenly had no path back to the bedroom where his family was. So he ran toward a back room and escaped through a broken window. Neighbors soon found him, bloody and burned, trying to get back into the home through the window of the bedroom where he believed his family to be. They had to drag him away and physically prevent him from running back into the house, which by this point was fully consumed by flames. David’s wife and children died in the fire.

Colored by the biases and scientific limitations of the time, investigators quickly concluded that the fire had been intentionally set and involved gasoline being poured on the carpet. David, the only possible suspect, was tried and convicted of triple murder, despite maintaining his innocence and having no possible reason to commit such a horrific crime against his own family. It would take 25 years before new experts hired by both the defense and prosecution concluded that all of the evidence the prosecution relied on was junk science. Although at the time of trial prosecutors had claimed that lab tests showed the presence of gasoline on the carpet, chemists hired by both sides agreed in 2012 that the results had been misread and that there was in fact no gasoline present. Experts from both sides having concluded that the fire was most likely an accidental one (likely caused by a candle or oil lamp falling onto a couch), David’s conviction was overturned, and he was released from prison—26 years after being sentenced to life without parole.

The legal community and the public at large certainly understand the bad outcome in David’s case—indeed, they are deeply touched by it as they hear David’s story at events put on by the innocence clinic. But they fail to account for the process that brought about that outcome. And as long as that failure remains, the bad outcomes—be they wrongful conviction, over-sentencing, denial of due process, etc.—will continue, despite the empathy for people like David.

When David was released, his became the most publicized exoneration in the history of our innocence clinic. The news coverage was fawning, and the power of David’s personal tragedy was overwhelming.

“What can be worse than being wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die in prison?”

“Losing your whole family, perhaps.”

And here was a man who had suffered both tragedies.

In interview after interview, as David tearfully recounted the tragic house fire in which his family died, his audience was left speechless. Even as we told the story of David’s case secondhand at community or bar association presentations, it never failed to evince emotion and sympathy.

Missing the Signal

At one such presentation, an annual Law Day breakfast at a country club, the audience included the chief prosecutor for that county. After the presentation, he came up to introduce himself and mentioned how touched he was to hear about David’s tragedy. Having learned of the grave consequences David suffered as a result of a flawed forensic and police investigation, he noted that he would be careful to keep an eye out for such cases in his own county.

But he didn’t have to look far. The Michigan Innocence Clinic was working on another wrongful conviction for arson that had arisen in that same county. It took time to work up the case and get it ready for filing, but once it was ready, we called that same prosecutor, reminded him of the Gavitt talk, and encouraged him to take a close look at this other arson/murder case.

The prosecutor was polite. He even invited the clinic to make a presentation about the case to his chief assistants. But after the presentation, his decision was a disappointment: “We have respectfully decided to oppose your motion.” Nearly two years of litigation would follow—taking place while our elderly innocent client faced the grave risks associated with being in prison at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We ultimately prevailed, but the prosecutor’s refusal to cooperate in that case—despite previously being so touched to hear of the injustice of a similar case in another county—was disheartening.

Disheartening, but also sadly common. While people are always moved by stories of wrongful conviction, when the same culprits behind those miscarriages of justice arise in their own cases, they are quick to explain them away.

“Yes, false confessions happen, but this confession was not false.”

“Yes, forensic science can be flawed, but I trust this expert.”

These reactions make plain how limited innocence litigation is as a primary vessel for upholding the integrity of the criminal legal system. As long as innocence cases are seen as one-offs, they accomplish very little for the cause of overall justice.

Of course, not every prosecution is flawed. But the legal system must be better about applying lessons and scrutinizing how cases are handled going forward. Or else we will keep making the same mistakes, and innocence clinic lawyers will always be needed.

The Impact of Innocence Clinics

So why do people rush to see famous innocence clinic cases as singularities rather than signals? The answer has become clear through the years of interactions we have had with our students and our adversaries. While it is essential that all lawyers, especially those who become prosecutors, be trained to consider the views and positions of the other side, it has traditionally been too easy for aspiring prosecutors to never have to put themselves in a defendant’s position. Innocence clinics, and clinical education programs more broadly, have begun to change this. Having a client to speak with and advocate for, regardless of one’s own preconceptions, can have a consequential impact on a developing legal mind.

Innocence clinics have the advantage of attracting not just those who want to become defense attorneys but also those who wish simply to do something interesting and meaningful in law school. In our own innocence clinic, we often teach aspiring prosecutors, and about a third of our students have no plans to practice criminal law at all. This is precisely the point. By engaging students in our cases, we shape how they view and act within the legal system regardless of which part of it they practice in—and this has considerable consequences.

Scores of our former students capably advocate for indigent defendants, working diligently to ensure fairness, equality, and due process by scrutinizing witnesses, studying forensic science issues, negotiating, and fighting for their clients. But just as important are the former students in prosecutors’ offices who convinced their supervisors to dismiss charges in a case where the evidence was weak, or those in state attorney general offices who agreed to compensate a wrongfully convicted person, rather than litigate a borderline issue. And then there are the many more who take the lessons of the innocence clinic into their work as civil litigators or corporate lawyers, handling pro bono cases and teaching younger attorneys at their firms the broader lessons of wrongful convictions.

Legitimacy in the criminal legal system is something to be worked toward, and such broad impact is critical. If innocence clinics are measured only by the clients they represent, then their impact is minimal. But when coupled with the work that is done by our students in their own careers, the eye-opening experience that we provide through litigating wrongful convictions can have a monumental and growing impact across the legal community.

Our students and interns are ready and willing to participate. They want to create legitimacy in the system, and whatever career they may plan to pursue, they come to law school and to our innocence clinic precisely to learn how to make a difference. To be clear, these students also often show us that we do not have all the answers, and their creativity and fresh perspective improve both our litigation and our teaching.

In the innocence clinic, we teach students the fundamentals of post-conviction litigation, investigative skills, and the rules of professional conduct. But we also expose them, sometimes for the first time, to the pitfalls of the system and to people unwilling to learn from their mistakes. They learn what ineffective assistance of counsel and police and prosecutorial misconduct look like. They learn about the power of forensic science and about the devastation leveled by its misuse. In their casework, they interview old and new witnesses, visit the neighborhoods where the cases arose, and experience the impact that flaws in the legal system have on families and communities. They learn the good and the bad that come with the work. And as they then progress to careers in criminal defense, prosecution, civil litigation, or corporate law, these lessons are not easily forgotten.

As former students in the Michigan Innocence Clinic ourselves, we both learned the broader importance of the effect such clinical work can have on students. We learned this not only from the routes our own careers took but also those of our many innocence clinic colleagues and students over the years. They have taken many different paths; they occasionally even litigate against each other. But whatever position they may take, their experience in the world of wrongful convictions will always remind them to educate themselves fully, consider opposing perspectives, and change their mind when the evidence demands it.

These are the best sort of attorneys, of course. The ones looking at their cases closely and making sure their clients are heard. The ones investigating cases thoroughly, whether by visiting a scene or speaking to contrasting experts. And the ones who listen to opposing arguments and fairly consider the merits of their opponent’s position, instead of blindly fighting to win. The tropes of the “lazy” public defender and the “cold, hard-nosed” prosecutor are long outdated; new lawyers bring into their offices a passion and determination that have been rare in criminal practice and that create new respect for the work and the profession.

Those of our students who become defense attorneys, public and private, use these skills every day to advocate to preserve their clients’ lives. Those who become prosecutors know the profound impact of their decisions and discretion as “ministers of justice,” and they recognize that they can never stop vetting and scrutinizing their own cases, lest they let one more person go to prison for a crime that person did not commit. With these students go the lessons they have learned about the past three decades of exonerations and the knowledge of the change they can impart in their corner of the legal system.

It is that mindset first and foremost that is changing how the criminal legal system operates and pushes us closer toward the legitimacy we want. Those who have had a fuller experience in law school, through innocence clinics or other such programs, are now progressing to leadership roles in prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices. They are partners at top law firms, and many have even joined the judiciary. In these positions, they replace an old guard that was too often taught to see things only one way—the way that led to victory for their side.

Again, justice, integrity, and legitimacy cannot operate only on an individual level. Among the biggest contributions of innocence clinics is to introduce into the conversation something the criminal legal system has long needed: perspective and accountability.

We do it through the cases we win, hoping that the underlying message is not being lost in the story of tragedy. We do it also through those pro bono attorneys who volunteer their time and effort, bringing the lessons of our cases into their offices and other courtrooms. And we do it through former students, who enter a changing legal profession with the tools and perspective to substantially improve it.

Innocence clinics thus play a key role in growing the integrity of the criminal legal system. It just happens to be playing out in the classroom—far from the courtroom where the media’s cameras and the public eye tend to be focused.