Innocence Lost

The D.A.'s policy cuts into an inmate advocacy program

The Innocence Network at the University of Houston law school may be the last hope for wrongfully convicted defendants, but it's not winning a lot of love from the district attorney. David Dow, the project's director, says Chuck Rosenthal's office makes it clear to law students that if they want an internship with the D.A., they'd better put their inmate advocacy work on hold.

"The message being communicated is…if you have this on your transcript, you're not going to get hired," he says.

The network, patterned after initiatives such as Barry Scheck's Innocence Project in New York, investigates cases in which there is compelling evidence that an innocent defendant has been convicted. More than 40 students have been involved in the program since it began in the spring of 2000. But Dow says at least a half-dozen students have dropped out when they've gone to work for the district attorney. And other students don't join the for-credit undertaking at all for fear of getting crosswise with the D.A.'s office, traditionally a steady employer of UH law grads.

The loss of these students is a serious blow to an endeavor that often requires months of digging through the minutia of cases across Texas. Dow says he doesn't begrudge his students for wanting the valuable experience of working for the district attorney, but he believes they should be able to do both.

Brian Rose, an assistant district attorney involved in hiring interns, acknowledges that students are told that they can't do criminal defense work while they are interning for the D.A.

"If someone's working for our office, they ought not to be working for a criminal defense attorney or for an organization that works on behalf of criminal defendants," he says. "It's not like there's some taint on you forever if you've ever been involved in criminal defense. We just don't want you to do it at the same time."

Dow believes there is no conflict of interest between Innocence Network research and prosecution work. The program is statewide, not just focused on Harris County. And they take only cases in which they believe a person did not commit the crime. They are not trying to overturn convictions of guilty defendants on claims of prosecutorial misconduct or other courtroom irregularities.

The law students have raised questions about guilty verdicts in a number of high-profile cases. Working with a Washington, D.C., attorney, they spent more than 1,000 hours interviewing people connected to the case of Max Soffar, who is on death row for the murders of three people at an area bowling alley in 1980.

The group tracked down a convicted robber who told them that an associate of his had confessed to the killings. Soffar's advocates found other evidence that pointed to his innocence, and in December 2000, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. (Soffar remains on death row while the state challenges the court's ruling.)

In another case, the Innocence Network helped determine that convicted burglar James L. Byrd did not in fact steal lawn equipment from a Fort Worth woman's garage -- a case that got him 30 years. It was the man's older brother who did the deed. Now Tarrant County prosecutors are seeking Byrd's release.

"Our work is based on 100 percent factual innocence," Dow says. "And the only way there's a conflict of interest is if the D.A.'s office believes there's some legitimate reason to keep innocent people in prison."

District Attorney Rosenthal says he is against convicting the innocent and applauds the work of groups like the Innocence Network.

"I don't have any problem with people standing over my shoulder and grading my papers, because the last thing we want to have is an innocent person convicted of a capital crime," he says.

 
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