Nick Vilbas knew he wasn’t studying law so he could eventually work for some high-powered corporation. He wanted to pursue justice for the wrongly accused, and he got the opportunity to do it before he even graduated from the Texas Tech University School of Law.
Vilbas drafted legal filings and combed through piles of case documents on behalf of Timothy Cole, who died in prison while serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. Eventually, the work of Vilbas and other student volunteers at the Innocence Project of Texas would lead Gov. Rick Perry to issue the first-ever posthumous exoneration in Texas.
“It cemented the fact that I knew I was doing something righteous,” Vilbas said. “You’re not fighting for a corporation to make them more money — you’re trying to seek justice for a person that didn’t do anything wrong.”
The number of exonerations in Texas has grown as the number of student volunteers in innocence projects, like Vilbas, has skyrocketed over the last decade. The first university innocence project started at the University of Houston Law Center in March 2000 with just four student volunteers and limited resources. Now, all four major Texas law schools and a number of smaller, private universities have students working on exonerations.
More than 120 students from Texas Tech, the University of Texas and the University of Houston worked more than 12,300 hours on Innocence Project cases from 2007 to 2009, according to the Task Force on Indigent Defense. As student participation has increased, so have exonerations. To date, Texas has issued 42 exonerations, 35 of them since 2001. Though factors such as scientific advancements in DNA testing have also contributed significantly to exoneration efforts, student involvement has been a critical element, said Natalie Roetzel, chief staff attorney of the Innocence Project of Texas. “It’s pretty safe to say that without student help and investigative power, we would not have as many exonerations,” she said.
Since 2005, state lawmakers have provided about $100,000 a year to each of the four public university innocence projects. Those dollars help keep the programs going, but they don’t go very far when DNA testing can cost up to $30,000 per case, Roetzel said. In the Tim Cole case, Texas Tech students did almost all the investigative work, she said.
With the continued success and national media attention on cases like Cole’s, more students have been drawn to innocence programs at Texas universities. The University of Texas at Dallas announced its affiliation with the Innocence Project of Texas in March 2010, after an overwhelming student response to a presentation from Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins about his Conviction Integrity Unit. Since it was established in 2007, the Conviction Integrity Unit has used DNA testing to exonerate seven men and confirmed the guilt of 28 others.
The University of Texas School of Journalism will start offering an investigative journalism course this fall. Journalism students will work with law students on cases at the Texas Center for Actual Innocence.
Students don’t get paid for their hours of work on inmates’ innocence claims, but they do get priceless experience. “It teaches you a respect for the practice of law,” said Patrick Lingwall, a third-year law student at the University of Texas who volunteered at the Texas Center for Actual Innocence. “It really teaches you what not to do as a criminal defense lawyer. You read through hundreds of cases and the ineptitude of lawyers is sort of astounding.”
Innocence project work can affect not only the lives of prisoners and their families, but it can also inspire change in state criminal justice operations. Crediting the work of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 and granted clemency to all death row inmates in 2003. Medill students have also worked in Texas. They started investigating the case of Hank Skinner, a Texas man on death row for the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons, in 1999. The students found a slew of untested DNA evidence from the crime scene, including a rape kit from the victim and other blood-stained items. Skinner has maintained his innocence since his arrest and says DNA testing would exonerate him.
But recently, the integrity of the Medill project has been called into question by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who challenged the ethics and investigative methods of journalism professor David Protess and his students. Alvarez alleges the students bribed and flirted with witnesses and suppressed evidence to secure an exoneration in Illinois. Alvarez’s critics have accused her of harboring a personal vendetta against Protess, and they say she is trying to discredit the program.
In Texas, the Innocence Project has resulted in legislative action. The exoneration of Tim Cole — who died in 1999 of an asthma attack in prison — inspired the Tim Cole Act, which awards exonerees $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned. Lawmakers also created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions to develop recommendations to prevent future wrongful convictions. On Aug. 12, the panel will present its recommendations to the Legislature.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the Timothy Cole Act, said the students’ work was vital to the successful exoneration. But he also said “there is a heck of a lot more to do” to prevent wrongful convictions and reform the Texas criminal justice system. He expects the panel’s recommendations will include reform to eyewitness identification, the recording of custodial interrogations and the expansion of access to DNA testing. “Anytime we have a system with so many problems, a system so stacked against us,” Ellis said, “there will always be a role to monitor.”