UNM Law Innocence & Justice Seminar

Professor Gordon Rahn charges his students in the Innocence and Justice Seminar to the same mission: find new evidence.

Rahn, director of the Innocence and Justice Project (IJP) at the University of New Mexico School of Law, said that in-depth investigation is key to overturning wrongful convictions of incarcerated indigent men and women who claim to be factually innocent.

This year’s class has one case where new evidence has been found, and the student assigned to the case is drafting a petition for DNA testing. In another case, IJP needs further testing, and the team is hopeful both could ultimately result in proof of their clients’ actual innocence.

Criminal investigation
IJP is the only program in New Mexico that investigates claims of factual innocence, and it also teaches law students how to do criminal investigation. The skills they learn are designed to help them become better lawyers and in turn transform the criminal justice system into a more fair and humane one.

Rahn and Adjunct Professor Molly Schmidt-Nowara team-teach the Innocence and Justice Seminar every Monday night for a full academic year. Schmidt-Nowara teaches the factors of wrongful conviction, including mistaken eyewitness identifications, bogus forensic science, prosecutorial/police misconduct, and how ineffective assistance of counsel can lead to wrongful convictions. She also discusses leading cases that depict those factors and how wrongful conviction applies to specific cases.

Hands-on investigation skills
Rahn teaches investigatory procedures and skills, and outlines the six steps on the path to finding new evidence. Students interview the client in the fall semester and again in the spring, practicing building trust, active listening and observing body language. They collect records from police departments, the Office of Medical Investigation and court records, where they analyze facts and get to know their case. They investigate the crime scene, which holds its own clues, and conduct background investigations.

Interviewing witnesses is next, and Rahn calls it the bull’s eye – friendly witnesses are the outside ring, then there are hostile witnesses, and key witnesses are in the inner ring. Students need to be well prepared to interview key witnesses.

Throughout the seminar, students write memos and submit monthly status reports and time logs. At the end of the fall semester, they write a case analysis. At end of the spring semester, they write a closing memo or transfer memo with recommendations.

Knowing the box and keeping an open mind
Rahn says it’s very important to “know the box” – students have to learn the contents of their case thoroughly before they can begin the search for new evidence. They also need to keep an open mind during the peaks and valleys of when they think their client might be guilty or innocent.

One of the best law school experiences
Second year law student Mesa Lindgren said she came to the UNM School of Law in part because of the Innocence and Justice Project. “I have always been passionate about issues of injustice, especially where such injustice results in incarceration. I know that the time I have spent in IJP will make me a better lawyer as I am now aware of the issues that stand in the way of just convictions,” Lindgren said.  

Third-year student Hadley Brown said that the class has been one of the most fulfilling, interesting and enjoyable classes she has taken at UNM, and adds,  “if more prosecutors and defense attorneys developed the perspective and awareness this class promotes, our criminal system would be more humane.”

High success rate
Rahn led a similar program in Kentucky, which had 13 cases with DNA testing and only one of them came back with “inclusion,” meaning the client’s DNA was shown on the evidence. He compares that track record to another innocence program, where half of the DNA testing comes back inclusive. Rahn said that what makes his process different is the focus on in-depth investigation.

Helping to ensure that justice is done in New Mexico
Because non-DNA related cases are not covered by any federal grant money, the law school seeks to raise funds to help with the investigations of more than 180 non-DNA related applications on file. These costs alone could be over $180,000.

A fund is established to honor Professor Barbara Bergman, who provides IJP program and Board of Directors integration, oversight and direction. The fund will provide resources to assist those cases in which DNA evidence does not exist.

For more information on how to make a gift, visit pledge of support.