UArizona Innocence Project Awarded DOJ Funding to Strengthen Partnership with County Attorney’s Office, Investigate Wrongful Convictions
Grant funds will increase the clinic’s capacity to resolve cases, identify systemic issues for reform and develop a model for similar partnerships across the state.
The University of Arizona Innocence Project (UAIP), housed within the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to increase the clinic’s capacity to investigate, litigate and overturn wrongful convictions in Pima County. The funding comes from the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Upholding the Rule of Law and Preventing Wrongful Convictions Program which awarded grants to five other organizations this fiscal year.
As a member of the nationwide Innocence Network, UAIP is at the center of the movement to identify and overturn wrongful convictions in Arizona. After screening cases to identify claims of innocence, UAIP thoroughly investigates each case to develop strategies with the potential to bring justice to the wrongfully convicted and litigate on behalf of their clients in state and federal court. Beyond direct client representation, clinic participants also engage in policy advocacy and conduct community education and outreach.
“Our criminal justice system is adversarial, so in a typical criminal case the state and the defense are working against one another,” explained Vanessa Buch director of UAIP. “With innocence work, we more readily find common ground: freeing someone who is convicted of a crime they did not commit.”
The Arizona Collaborative Justice Initiative, as the UAIP-led project has been dubbed, will establish a partnership between UAIP and the Pima County Attorney’s Office Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit (CSIU), a program created by newly elected Pima County Attorney Laura Conover in 2020.
The creation of the CSIU opened the door for greater cooperation between UAIP and the County Attorney’s office. When a convicted individual seeks help from CSIU, this partnership will now allow the unit to refer cases to UAIP to ensure representation is available where needed. The partner organizations will also work together to develop cooperation agreements and to implement best practices for preserving each side’s roles and responsibilities in cases under joint review. Where claims of innocence are identified, the UAIP and CSIU will work together toward relief and resolution, engaging in joint reinvestigation to maximize resources and efficiency.
“Wrongful convictions compromise community safety and erode confidence in the criminal justice system,” said Buch. “Partnerships like ours are essential to addressing those impacts. Working together, we can not only correct past mistakes but also shed light on errors in the system in order to spearhead reforms and prevent wrongful convictions in the future.”
Like University of Arizona Law’s other clinics, the UAIP is a teaching law office where students work on real cases under the close supervision of experienced faculty members. The experience provides them with practical training in skills such as presentation and advocacy, cross-cultural lawyering, interviewing and investigation skills.
According to clinic student Riley Hemm, “Participating in the Innocence Project Clinic has been a life-changing experience. Not only did I learn the law and strategy involved in litigating innocence cases, I learned about the grit and determination it takes to win these cases against seemingly insurmountable odds. Most importantly, I am blown away by the relentlessness, intelligence, and optimism of the exonerees I met, who remind us why this work is imperative.”