A UNM School of Law program that works to overturn wrongful convictions could be losing its funding soon.
Since 2009, the New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project has helped UNM law students investigate claims of innocence in legal cases after the accused has already been convicted.
One of these cases involved a motion to vacate the conviction of Jacob Duran, who was accused of murder in 1987. The motion was made after the program used modern DNA testing to determine that blood and hair found on scene did not belong to Duran, according to Gordon Rahn, NMIJP project director and research professor at the UNM School of Law.
With the help of the faculty, students “review case records, read trial transcripts, interview incarcerated clients, visit crime scenes and review crime scene records, conduct background investigations of key people in cases, interview witnesses (and) attempt to locate physical and/or biological evidence that could possibly be tested for DNA,” Rahn said.
But now the program is losing funding, and needs a savior of its own.
Grant funds, approximately $200,000 per year, are relied upon to keep NMIJP afloat by providing a means for pursuing investigative and operational costs, including the ability to test DNA, Rahn said.
However, that grant expires this May, and the funding stream may be discontinued.
“Due to the state’s budget crisis and its impact on UNM and the Law School, there are no funds available through the Law School’s budget for us,” he said. “Without funding from other sources, it is likely the program cannot continue beyond the end date of the grant.”
Rahn said that NMIJP, housed at the School of Law, provides “a unique opportunity” that draws students to UNM from around the country.
“Losing (the program) takes away a huge advantage that we have of recruiting great minds and keeping our future attorneys here in the state,” said Sara Escobedo, NMIJP paralegal. “UNM has a valuable resource by housing NMIJP, for both students and the community.”
Escobedo said the program was not intended to remove people from prison, but rather to ensure the correct person is incarcerated.
“For every wrongful conviction, a criminal is getting away with a crime. Many believe if you are in prison you are guilty, and the justice system doesn’t err so easily. That is easy to say, until it happens to you or someone you love,” she said. “We are here to help right the wrongs that are done and to make sure justice is served.”
Sean Dolan, a second-year law student, said the program gives students like him practical and meaningful experience during law school by allowing them to pursue necessary hands-on experience outside the classroom.
“We have already filed motions with the court, requested evidence, analyzed witness interviews and evidence lists and interviewed clients,” Dolan said. “Having done the program, we are vastly more prepared to enter the workforce and immediately know what we are doing.”
Dolan said the program benefits the community by providing avenues for the wrongfully convicted to be exonerated.
“It is very expensive for New Mexico to house a prisoner,” he said. “The state is hemorrhaging taxpayer money by housing innocent people. Also, the actual perpetrator is running free in our community, potentially committing other crimes.”
Dolan said wrongful convictions can happen to anyone, and therefore the program could potentially benefit anyone.
“This program is invaluable to the state and the students. If anyone in New Mexico might be a defendant or have a victim in the family, they would have wanted the lawyers on the case to have gone through this program,” he said. “They want the best defense and prosecution; this program is how we get that.”
Escobedo said participating in this project is the most fulfilling work she has accomplished, emphasizing that NMIJP is needed in New Mexico.
“The justice system is an imperfect and fallible process,” she said. “For many years, the cracks have become more evident, and it’s become the norm to hear about a person who had to suffer for a mistake that was made at some point in their judicial process.”
Escobedo said that NMIJP prioritizes the truth.
“We are the final piece of the puzzle in the justice system and ensure the correct perpetrator is being punished,” she said. “The community needs this project to investigate cases without the prejudices and opinions that can convolute and pressure cases.”
When asked what the program offers students, the University, the convicted and the community, Rahn had a simple answer: hope.
As the only program in the state that reviews and investigates post-conviction innocence claims without a monetary fee from the convicted, NMIJP is the last chance for wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence, he said.
The students in the program will carry knowledge of wrongful convictions with them wherever their legal careers take them, decreasing or even eliminating the potential of convicting the innocent altogether, he said.
Rahn said he hopes NMIJP will be a future beacon of change to adopt further reform in helping the innocent avoid wrongful incarceration.
Elizabeth Sanchez is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.