Monday 31 January 2011

UVa law students helping man on death row

A group of University of Virginia students provided legal legwork in the case of a Northern Virginia man facing the death penalty.
The 12 students in the Innocence Project Clinic at UVa’s law school searched for improperly withheld evidence in the case of Justin Wolfe, who was convicted in 2002 of murder-for-hire. They are now waiting for the ruling of a Norfolk federal judge after a Nov. 2 hearing during which the shooter in the incident recanted his prior testimony that Wolfe hired him to commit murder.
Students listened to hours of police interview audiotapes, read police reports, tracked down police reports and worked with the defendant’s lawyers to create a legal strategy for the evidentiary hearing. Matthew Engle, the clinic’s legal director, said the work that the students did for the defense team at the King & Spalding law firm in Washington, D.C., is experience they would need as lawyers.
“They need to interview witnesses and be comfortable with that,” Engle said. “Apart from the clinic setting, you don’t get a chance to do that in law school.”
The clinic, which takes second-year and third-year law students, focuses on cases in which defendants are trying to prove their innocence. Alan Dial, one of the D.C. firm’s partners, said the clinic had been working on other cases with the firm when the judge permitted Wolfe’s defense team to review the prosecutor’s files for evidence that hadn’t been released.
“They were an incredible resource for us to have and they were instrumental in our effort to present a strong case for Justin,” Dial said. “The stakes were very high. On several occasions, they were working around the clock.”
Wolfe was accused of hiring Owen Merton Barber IV to kill 21-year-old Danny Petrole for drugs, cash and to repay a debt. Petrole, who was shot and killed in 2001 after he pulled up to his townhome, was reportedly Wolfe’s main drug connection.
Michelle Harrison, a second-year law student, said she was assigned to review documents related to Petrole’s roommate. Harrison, who read through documents multiple times to see how the drug trade evolved over time and find inconsistent statements, said the clinic has provided her with her first opportunity to see what happens in a courtroom.
“It’s definitely the most meaningful thing I’ve done so far,” she said.
Other students had to interact with witnesses directly. Deirdre M. Enright, the clinic’s director of investigations, said that process wasn’t always easy.
“There were extremely willing witnesses and extremely unwilling witnesses,” Enright said.
All 12 clinic students attended Wolfe’s hearing in November. Bernadette Donovan, a third-year law studentwho worked on a brief that the clinic prepared before the start of classes, said her experience in the clinic has convinced her to change her career path from commercial litigation to post-conviction appellate work.
Wolfe’s case is now in the hands of the judge, who Engle said indicated that he thought he would have a quick ruling. In the meantime, Donovan said, there is more work to be done.
“Unfortunately, we never run out of wrongfully convicted people,” she said.

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