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Justice Project moves to law school


April 08, 2008

The Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating those wrongfully convicted and correcting other manifest injustices, is moving to ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. For 10 years, the project has been housed at Osborn Maledon, P.A., where attorney Larry Hammond has served as chair.

The move is made possible by a $150,000 grant from the Arizona State Bar’s nonprofit foundation, the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education, which also will allow the project to hire its first permanent staff, including an executive director, a development director and an administrative assistant.

“The Arizona Justice Project has long set a high standard for the quality of its work in its pursuit of the rights of those who have been denied the justice our legal system has been set up to guarantee,” says Patricia White, the college’s dean. “The quality of the legal work its volunteers have provided, and the enormous commitment to justice that they have shown, have made it a national exemplar. We are very proud to welcome the project to the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and are confident that those standards will continue, and that our students and faculty will benefit enormously from the opportunity presented by its being here.”

Hammond praised the move.

“The Arizona law schools have been the lifeblood of this project from the beginning, but this relocation will allow us to work at levels never before possible,” Hammond says. “Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice (AACJ) and all of those who have volunteered with the project over the last decade owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dean White, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and to the Bar Foundation’s leadership.”

Professors Bob Bartels at ASU and Andy Silverman at the University of Arizona have coordinated work at the law schools. Students from Phoenix School of Law also will participate.

“The project runs on volunteer work, and the best source is law students,” Bartels says. “Moving to the law school will make it easier for the students and will forge a connection with faculty members who are experts in the area.”

Bartels adds that it also is more feasible for the project to conduct its research in an academic environment.

Carrie Sperling, a visiting associate clinical professor at the College of Law, has been chosen as executive director. Sperling spent five years as an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman, Okla., and has more than a decade of experience in civil rights and post-conviction relief litigation.

“You learn that mistakes can be made and innocent people convicted,” Sperling says. “Someone has to hold the system accountable. My real excitement is the ability to bring in students to get hands-on experience in the real world. It exposes them to a side of the law they might not have thought about. And these are rewarding cases.”

Also joining the Justice Project’s staff is Vera Hamer-Sonn, a member of the College of Law staff since 1999.

The Arizona Justice Project was founded by Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and was one of the first handful of innocence projects that now number more than 40 across the country. It relies almost exclusively on the volunteer work of lawyers, investigators, experts and consultants. More than 2,500 cases have been reviewed, and about 50 are either in court or being evaluated at any one time. The cases have included actual innocence, overly harsh sentencing and ineffective assistance of counsel, among other issues.

In one case, State v. Lacy, Byron Lacy was convicted of manslaughter and aggravated assault and sentenced to 17 years in prison. The convictions stemmed from an incident outside a Phoenix “social club” in which shots were fired from several different directions; a security guard was killed and a bystander wounded. Lacy claimed he only fired warning shots into the air from his handgun after others had started shooting. A Justice Project team from the ASU College of Law showed that Lacy’s trial attorney had not investigated the case adequately, and that the state’s own evidence demonstrated that the fatal bullet hole in the victim’s skull was too small to have been made by a bullet from Lacy’s gun. Lacy’s convictions eventually were reversed, and the charges were dismissed because the evidence was not consistent with his guilt.

A permanent staff will help manage the numerous volunteers. Over the past decade, hundreds of students have been involved, nearly 50 at any given time, and 60 to 70 in any academic year. Private attorneys, law professors and investigators also volunteer their time for the project.

Students research and investigate cases, write briefs, prepare cases for court and argue before the Board of Executive Clemency.

Bartels says the students learn a tremendous amount about the legal system by working on the cases.

“There is a lot to learn about how the system works,” Bartels says. “They see what bad lawyers and good lawyers can do. In class, law students usually deal with established sets of facts, and very few ever get to investigate the facts. Through the project, they learn how hard it is to find and deal with evidence, how to prove what really happened.”

The project also is seeking additional funding to help analyze the use of DNA evidence in Arizona.

Judy Nichols, judith.nichols@asu.edu
(480)727-7895
College of Law