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Courting freedom

ASU Law students find paths to freedom for Arizona inmates


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May 05, 2023

Keith Harrison spent nearly three decades in a small cell in the Arizona state prison system serving a life sentence for a crime that should have put him away for 11 years. 

In November 2022, thanks to Arizona State University’s Post-Conviction Clinic, Harrison, 58, walked out of prison a free man. 

 The Post-Conviction Clinic is both a class and a clinic offered at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Students taking the class develop the necessary skills to investigate claims of wrongful conviction from Arizona prisoners. 

Randal McDonald, supervising attorney for the clinic, was in the courtroom the day Harrison was resentenced. He was joined by an ASU Law graduate and two ASU Law students who worked on the case. “It was wild,” said McDonald, who teaches the Post-Conviction Clinic class. “It really was a moment to remember.” The Post-Conviction Clinic is small — so small that the only sign that it exists is a placard on McDonald's office door on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

But it’s making a big difference in the lives of many.

Since his arrival in 2021, McDonald, together with his students, have provided pro bono legal services, helping seven Arizona inmates regain their freedom. 

The clinic is part of the innocence movement that’s revolutionizing the criminal justice system throughout the country. Many of the cases McDonald and his students work on enable them to do what few people can — save lives.

That’s exactly what happened with Harrison. 

A tough on crime time

In 1994, Harrison and two other men attempted a robbery. According to court records, Harrison drove alongside a truck, while the other two men jumped into the back of the pickup. The men pointed guns at the driver and passenger. Thankfully, the two victims managed to escape. 

Harrison and his accomplices were picked up by the police and he was charged with aggravated assault — a crime that should have resulted in an 11-year sentence. 

But there was one problem. 

Harrison’s crime occurred at a time when lawmakers were touting tough-on-crime laws. He was on probation for the possession of marijuana when he was arrested.

So, he and many like him, became a casualty of the times. The judge handed Harrison a life sentence.  When he walked into prison, it was like driving on a one-way road without an exit. Harrison was 30 years old. He thought his life was over. 

Then in 2020, Arizona voters passed Proposition 207: Marijuana Legalization Initiative, which made the purchase of recreational cannabis legal for adults 21 and older. 

More than that, the initiative came with a potential get-out-of-jail provision — prisoners could petition the court to expunge or seal any of their marijuana-related criminal records, which would reduce their prison time.

The problem, McDonald explains, is that finding prisoners with charges trumped up by prior marijuana convictions is not easy. 

If it wasn’t for a random conversation between McDonald and the Maricopa County attorney, Harrison would still be incarcerated. 

Not every inmate is that fortunate. 

"That’s the biggest hurdle,” said McDonald, a graduate of Harvard Law School. “We can help but there is no centralized database. So finding these people has been a real challenge,” he said.

By the time McDonald reached out, Harrison had exhausted his appeals. McDonald’s helping hand gave Harrison, and others like him, a second shot at life. 

Practicing the law

The Post-Conviction Clinic is one of many ASU Law clinics that help bridge the gap between earning a degree and practicing law outside of a school setting. In the classroom, students learn the intricacies of post-conviction law and then practice what they’ve learned in the clinic. 

In the course of the semester, students will have the opportunity to collaborate with inmates, defense lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement and investigators. 

They work on cases that involve everything from DNA to juveniles sentenced to life in prison. 

“We've worked on cases involving claims of innocence, excessive sentencing cases, cases involving prisoners in imminent danger of death and clemency and parole cases,”  explained Katie Puzauskas, who worked with both the Arizona Justice Project and ASU Post-Conviction Clinic.

Since its inception in 2009, more than 100 second or third-year law students have taken the Post-Conviction Clinic — a six-credit class that requires 180 semester hours in the clinic. McDonald meets with students once a week to discuss their cases. 

Many of the cases the Post-Conviction Clinic works on are referrals from the Arizona Justice Project — a nonprofit established in 1998 to help indigent Arizona inmates whose claims of innocence have been disregarded. It was a grant awarded to the Arizona Justice Project that opened the Post-Conviction Clinic and grants that keep it going. 

The clinic is “oftentimes, the last resort for indigent Arizona prisoners who have exhausted all other appeals,” said Puzauskas. 

Post-conviction work is a specialized, niche practice area that is becoming increasingly vital with more and more prisoners nationwide being exonerated by DNA testing. According to NORML, an nonprofit that advocates for legalized marijuana, nearly 2 million pardons and expungements have been given to people with marijuana convictions in recent years. 

The clinic works to give people back their lives while giving law students a life-changing experience. 

Benefits for all

Andi Humphreys has been with the clinic for two years. First as a student, and now, after passing the bar in October 2022, as a lawyer. 

Her work focuses specifically on Proposition 207 cases. 

“Most of their legal remedies have run their course,” she said. “We help people that don't have any other options. And that's very rewarding.” 

When ASU Law students Samantha Rincon and Cody Jackson signed up for the Post-Conviction Clinic in August 2022, their first case was Harrison’s. 

The two students spent hours at work preparing for their day in court.  Their goal was to have the marijuana charge dropped and then have Harrison resentenced. 

And they did. 

As the students worked on the case they went through a myriad of emotions — frustration, sadness and anger.

“Our position as law students is to turn that anger into passion for our work,” said Rincon, who graduated from ASU Law in May and will be working in civil litigation.

The work impacted both students in significant ways. 

Rincon said the minute she heard Harrison’s thankful voice on the phone, “I knew that everything that I was doing had a true purpose.”

When Harrison was released just a few days before the holidays, Rincon cried.

"We take it for granted that we can spend the holiday with our family, and for the first time in nearly 30 years our client had the privilege to do so,” she said. 

Both students were surprised on the day of the court hearing. After a couple of months of hard work, they were only in the courtroom for a couple of minutes before the judge set Harrison free. 

Jackson, who is going into his third year at ASU Law, said working on the Harrison case is something he will never forget. 

“This is probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my law school career,” Jackson said, “because we are able to use the skills that ASU law gave us and work to give back to the community and help someone whom the justice system has forgotten and left behind.”

ASU's Post-Conviction Clinic bridges the gap between learning and practicing law. 

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