ASU Post-conviction Clinic

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Arizona State University’s Post-conviction Clinic seeks to help inmates who are innocent but have been convicted of a crime. The clinic recently received a new grant from the National Institute of Justice. Katherine Puzauskas, executive director of the Arizona Justice Project, and Robert Dormady, a law fellow at ASU Law and program coordinator for the Post-Conviction Clinic, will tell us more.

TED SIMONS: ASU'S post conviction clinic looks to help inmates who are innocent but have been convicted of a crime. The clinic recently received a grant from the institute of justice. Katherine Puzauskas, is the executive director of the Arizona Justice Project and Joy Dormady is the clinic's coordinator. Thanks for joining us. The post conviction clinic, give me a better definition.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: The post conviction clinic started January of 2009. It is a clinical program at the Sandra Day O'Connor college of law, it's a collaborative effort with the Arizona project to review prisoner claims of innocence post conviction. Not only does the clinic look at cases of actual innocence but in its history it's also looked at cases where we believe there's been a miscarriage of justice. The clinic gives law students practical experience looking at claims post conviction.

TED SIMONS: when they are looking, first how do you decide which cases to look at? What kind of process goes on?

JOY DORMADY: Well, at the Arizona justice project we have an intake lawyer who reviews the hundreds of petitions that come in detailing what they feel how they have been wronged. Based on that intake lawyer's finding, she passes along claims that she believes has merit and then we have law students take a closer look.

TED SIMONS: What do they look at?

JOY DORMADY: It varies. There's a lot of instances of if you look at the DNA evidence that had not been analyzed or technology that didn't exist at the time there's been instances of prosecutorial misconduct. Forensics that are unverified or there's been some kind of misconduct in that regard.

TED SIMONS: I would imagine the DNA would be a very big factor.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Sure, and some of the cases we're looking at are decades old. There was not the DNA testing technologies available then that we have now. In addition to that, other forensic disciplines have evolved over time, especially if you're talking about fire signs or ballistics or fingerprint analysis or hair microscopy. When we're talking about decades old cases bringing these cases back up to the surface and reanalyzing them based on current technologies.

TED SIMONS: So what will the students exactly be doing?

JOY DORMADY: Well, students -- it's great because at the clinic students get to take a look at a case from the commission of the offense, being the facts of the crime, they review it all the way through trial, appellate procedures and so forth. So it really gives students a practical practice experience and teaches a lot of good lessons regardless of whether they are doing prosecution or defense work.

TED SIMONS: But litigation is not a primary component, correct?

JOY DORMADY: Not necessarily but in the past it has. In my experience as a former student I represented a client at the Arizona board of clemency in two separate hearings, phase one and phase two. These cases take on average from six to seven years.

TED SIMONS: Why do they take on average six to seven years?

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Well, like I mentioned, oftentimes we're looking at old convictions. So it takes a long time to recreate the case file. When we get a file, the case has been through pretrial proceedings, trial and appellate proceedings. Oftentimes it's been through a number of post conviction proceedings. So we're looking at several attorneys who had the case over a long period of time. We're having to recreate the case file. That's one component. Then we're having to locate people, witnesses in the case to try to talk to them about the case.

TED SIMONS: Do you try to focus on Arizona cases?

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Yes, Arizona specific. People who have been convicted in the state of Arizona.

TED SIMONS: Any cases so far that you can tell us have somehow gotten a result that you were looking for or anticipating?

JOY DORMADY: Well, we can't discuss the specifics of any cases, but I can tell you that, you know, the clinic and as an extension umbrella the Arizona justice project, there's been 16 exoneration cases, not technically all exoneration but successful cases that resulted in release and there's some pending cases right now.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: So when we're talking about the 16 people who have been released within the last six years by the Arizona justice project and in one of those cases in particular working in conjunction with the conviction clinic those are cases where there's been a claim of innocence or a case of manifest injustice so we're looking at maybe an excessive sentence or a diagnosis that was not available at the time of trial.

TED SIMONS: There's a two-year $900,000 grant involved here, talk to us about that.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Yes. That grant is through the national institute of justice. It's a Bloodsworth grant named after Kirk Bloodsworth, who is the first DNA- sentenced to death in the state of Maryland. The grant was used to start the clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor college of law. That grant expired in 2013, and it was able to be renewed so we just started implementing the new grant in January of this year.

TED SIMONS: What do you want students involved in the project, in the clinic, what do you want them to learn? What do you want them to take from this?

JOY DORMADY: I think just a broader view of what our criminal justice system looks like. It's not black and white, good guy versus bad guys. There's over 2 million people incarcerated in this country and human beings are prone to error and the criminal justice system being human people slip through the cracks. Working with some of the inmates, seeing and hearing their stories really puts a face to the statistics and I can think of nothing more worthy than getting somebody who is innocent, you know, giving them their freedom back.

TED SIMONS: I imagine you see people changing all the times when they get involved in these cases.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Absolutely. A wrongful conviction doesn't only affect the wrongfully convicted. It has ripple effects. It affects the families of the people wrongfully convicted. It affects the attorneys involved over time. It can even affect the victims in some of the cases. So it has ripple effects and nobody wants to see an innocent person incarcerated for something they didn't do.

TED SIMONS: Thank you both for being here, we appreciate it.

KATHERINE PUZAUSKAS: Thanks for having us.

TED SIMONS: Thursday on "Arizona Horizon" find out about efforts to help spur development along developmental transit routes and a Casa Grande based company using a desert plant to make natural rubber. That's at 5:30 and ten on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of 8, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Katherine Puzauskas: executive director of the Arizona Justice Project. Robert Dormady: law fellow at ASU Law and program coordinator for the Post-Conviction Clinic

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