Barbara Bergman
Barbara Bergman

DNA analysis can help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent when the criminal justice system fails to function as it should. Since its reorganization in 2010, the Innocence and Justice Program (IJP) at the University of New Mexico School of Law has investigated claims of innocence and provided courses in criminal investigation to students at the law school.

Now a sub-grant agreement between the UNM Law School and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety will allow IJP to grow and expand its investigations of claims of factual innocence in those cases where physical or biological evidence may exist that can be tested to prove the claim of innocence. The funding comes from a two-year $585,119 grant awarded by the United States Department of Justice “Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence to Exonerate the Innocent program” grant.

Professor Barbara Bergman provides IJP program and Board of Directors integration, oversight and direction. “The UNM Law School Innocence and Justice Project is an amazing program that serves our state by providing assistance to incarcerated individuals with claims of actual innocence. There is no other program in the state that systematically does this work. It also educates our law students, who uniformly describe it as one of their best law school experiences in learning how to investigate complex cases and to appreciate the causes of wrongful convictions,” Bergman said.

The IJP partners with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to administer the DNA testing as well as the grant, and IJP Director Professor Gordon Rahn said that he is grateful to the DPS. “It is a unique professional relationship dedicated to testing and evaluating scientific evidence that may exist in a case that could prove the innocence of men and women incarcerated in New Mexico for crimes they did not commit,” Rahn said.

Since joining the UNM School of Law faculty in 2010, Rahn has served as director of the IJP and has taught 110 students through the program and his Wrongful Convictions class. He teaches UNM law students and supervises their work investigating potential cases deemed worthy of the time and resources to thoroughly investigate the more than 20 cases currently under review.

IJP is working with other criminal justice stakeholders in New Mexico to identify ways to improve the criminal justice system in the state, particularly in the area of preservation of evidence, which is so vital to the success of the Project’s investigations under the grant. Other issues, such as mistaken eyewitness identifications, a leading factor in wrongful convictions, are also being addressed through proposed legislation.

Students at the law school say that IJP provides a valuable opportunity for them to be a part of something that really matters. “Those who participate gain real experience and develop an intimate understanding of how the system breaks down, and what can be done to reform it,” said Maggie Lane, class of 2011. “As a UNM law student, I took the seminar and spent a semester investigating cases. My law school education would have been incomplete without this opportunity. The wrongfully convicted within our state need someone to advocate for them and our law students deserve to continue filling that role.”