Project for the Innocent Students Ask, 'Who Can I Help Today?'
Professor Laurie Levenson picks up a pile of letters postmarked from prisons all over the United States and says, “There are no disposable people in this world,” as she opens the first envelope. Inside are pages of a handwritten letter addressed to Loyola’s Project for the Innocent from an inmate begging the clinic to reexamine his case. When asked if she will read the whole letter she answers, “Yes, and we investigate every single one. This is just today’s batch.”
The Project for the Innocent fields claims from petitioners who allege that they have been wrongfully convicted. It is part of the Alarcn Advocacy Center. Since its inception, project students have received hundreds of letters from inmates across the nation. Students screen cases, research legal issues, interview witnesses and meet with inmates. The project provides invaluable exposure to real cases and clients for students with a passion for public interest law.
The Project for the Innocent spent three years investigating and interviewing witnesses for an inmate named Obie Anthony to prove his innocence and secure his release. Senior Fellow Adam Grant ’10 worked on the case from start to finish -- first as a student, then as a staff member. “I was attached to the case,” Grant said. “Once I had met him in prison, I just couldn’t walk away.”
Students spent more than 75 hours in front of a judge with new evidence they had gathered to prove the flaws in Anthony’s original trial. Finally, after 17 years in prison, Anthony’s conviction was overturned. Levenson recalls, “The day Obie Anthony walked out of that courtroom a free man was the highlight of my career.” A group of project students greeted Anthony the day he was released from prison on Oct. 5, 2011 (pictured above).
Recently, Anthony was asked to tell his story at Loyola’s annual Journalist Law School. He said, “Years went by and Loyola Law School came my way… It is the system that brought me home. When the individuals that stood on justice and truth got involved with my case they procured my freedom and discovered the truth.” Anthony was given a second chance at life and he thanks Loyola faculty and the dedicated group of students who worked tirelessly in his defense.
Levenson intends to house the premier center on the west coast committed to addressing hot criminal law issues and serving the community. The Project for the Innocent is currently investigating 15 cases and the number of students involved continues to grow. Grant said, “The goal of the clinic is to make human contact with as many witnesses [in a given case] as possible.” The countless hours that they have donated has gained laud from organizations in the legal community. This year the ACLU Foundation of Southern California honored the Project for the Innocent with its prestigious Criminal Justice Award, and Levenson was asked to be the keynote speaker at the event.
Participation in clinics and completion of the 40 hour pro bono graduation requirement instills a rich moral code that defines a Loyola graduate. Levenson said, “When they leave law school they should have a lot of confidence and feeling of self worth – not only because they know that there are many people who need their assistance but they know that they have something they can do to help. “ It’s the personal relationships and skills built through daily interaction with clients that provide students with that “something,” an obligation, to dedicate themselves to the service of others.
Students in the clinic have a motto, “Who can I help today?” With all of the calls and letters they receive each day, the demand on them is high, but Loyola students never lose sight of their ultimate goal: to be advocates for others.