The Irish Innocence Project is based in Griffith College in Dublin. Formerly the Richmond Bridewell Prison, a man named Joseph Pool was convicted of murder, hanged and buried there in an unmarked grave in 1883. It is thought that he was wrongly convicted of the crime.
Aside from the historical legacy of its surroundings, the organisers of the Irish Innocence Project are finding other ways to distinguish itself from the wider Innocence Network, comprised of 68 projects worldwide.
The organisations provide free legal and investigative services to prove the innocence of people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Most often, law students work in collaboration with lawyers to investigate the cases of prisoners who claim innocence.
"I would say students almost all describe their experience working on the Innocence Project as the most important experience of their college career . . . it's not just an academic exercise. These are real lives they're working with, real cases," says Anne Driscoll, a US journalist who joined the project in 2013 on a Fulbright Scholarship. She is now the project manager.
She is still the senior reporter at the Justice Brandeis Law Project, a journalism-based innocence project at Brandeis University in the US. She has worked with students on innocence cases since 2006.
Students have a responsibility to address the “enormous amount of pain and damage” caused by a miscarriage of justice and wrongful conviction while working on the project. “It’s an experience that really couldn’t be replicated anywhere else,” she says.
Law and journalism
“The idea for my Fulbright was that I would come and train the law students on how to investigate and interview like a journalist. And when I called David [Langwallner, the founder and director] to tell him I wanted to submit a proposal for a Fulbright, he spent the first 10 minutes of the call telling me how much he hates journalists.
“So I just ignored him, and now he’s come full circle. He sees the value of what they offer.”
Now law and journalism students work co-operatively at the Irish Innocence Project. It is one of only two projects in the world to open up to journalism students.
“For lawyers, it’s all about the process, and it’s a very linear process. For a journalist, there is no process. It’s wherever the questions take them. So they’re just two different ways of approaching the same issue, and they both have value. These are really complementary skills,” she says. “We think it’s an advantageous model.”
The 21 student caseworkers from Griffith College, DCU and TCD review documents, go on site and prison visits, interview witnesses and gather evidence under the supervision of eight volunteer lawyers. They are working on 25 cases.
Previously, students had to travel to the library at Griffith to review documents. Driscoll set up a cloud-based system for storing cases so students can work remotely.
But the material is highly sensitive, and students are trained in the protocol of handling them. Cases are strictly confidential in all but rare instances where the facts are made public, as in the recent Harry Gleeson case.
The students also receive training in the causes of wrongful convictions, including faulty/overstated scientific evidence, false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, poor investigations and police or prosecutorial misconduct, among others.
“It’s stretching the [student] to be an investigator, a psychologist, a forensic investigator and a sociologist,” says Langwallner.
“We often absorb things superficially and then they blow away. This creates in students what’s called embedded learning – learning by doing, deep structure knowledge,” he added. Competition is high for students trying to join the project. There were 60 applications for nine new spots this academic year.
Holly O'Callaghan, a final year law student at DCU, applied twice and got in after spending eight weeks at the Innocence Project at Northern Arizona University last summer.
In Arizona, she had to learn about the US legal system as quickly as possible in order to participate effectively.
“If somebody told me that within three weeks, I’d be able to read trial transcripts and judgements of American courts and understand them, I wouldn’t have believed them. I don’t think I’ve ever learned something so quickly in my whole life,” she said.
“I wasn’t even sure what a habeas corpus petition was before I went, and now I could give a lecture on it,” she added.
Back in Ireland, she is working on two cases with a team of four people.
She said that, without expecting to, she has gotten attached to the people whose cases she works on. “You want to see the best for them. You know so much about them, more than probably most people do. You feel like you know them even if you’ve never met.”
Recently, though, she did meet someone at the centre of one of her cases.
“It was shocking and very, very moving . . . it’s easy to reduce people to an abstraction if you just see a name. But once you’ve met them, it’s much harder to not put it as a priority.”
The man had been imprisoned for a crime he says he did not commit, served his sentence and was released. “He was so destroyed by the accusations against him, and it had been going on for years. It had changed his whole life. And it’s not something you get over or forget about. It sticks with you. It gives a whole different dimension to the innocence project. It’s not just trying to keep innocent people out of prison. It’s about giving them a sense of dignity and a sense of justice,” she said.
The project plans to award the first Gerry Conlon Memorial Law and Journalism Scholarship to a student interested in pursuing wrongful convictions at its first International Conference on Wrongful Convictions on June 26th.
Gareth Peirce, who successfully overturned the wrongful convictions of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, will be the keynote speaker. The following day, the project will host the International Wrongful Convictions Film Festival. Both events will be held at Griffith College.