Students, Faculty and Donors Partner to Help the Innocent

Darnell Phillips hugs his mom

Darnell Phillips hugs his mother after being released from prison for a crime the Innocence Project Clinic says he never committed. Photos by Keith Cephus Photography

September 26, 2019

Emerson Stevens, Darnell Phillips, Messiah Johnson, Bennett Barbour, Edgar Coker, and Gary Bush are a few of the incarcerated Virginians who have been released thanks to the efforts of the Law School’s Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project began at UVA Law in 2008 as a yearlong, for-credit clinic for 12 students who investigate and litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout Virginia. It is directed by attorneys Deirdre Enright ’92, who founded the Law School’s effort, and Jennifer Givens.

Student interest quickly outpaced available spots, and in 2014, a second, not-for-credit pro bono clinic was established. Even with the additional 50 spots, a waitlist exists—a testament to the Innocence Project’s significance to its clients and to the student lawyers-in-training.

Dennis Barrett ’09, an attorney with Schaner & Lubitz, was a member of the clinic in its first year. He and his classmates worked to uncover new evidence in the case of Darnell Phillips, leading to his release in 2018 after having been sentenced to 100 years in prison for the 1990 rape of a child in Virginia Beach.

At the time of Phillips’ release, Barrett stressed the Innocence Project’s value.

“Most importantly, the clinic has helped free a man who has been unjustly imprisoned for nearly three decades, but I also know the clinic has had an indelible impact on those students fortunate enough to work on it,” Barrett said. “Few of us will end up with a job working on wrongful convictions full-time, but none of those who have worked at the Innocence Project will leave the experience without a profoundly different view of the justice system that we'll carry forward in our personal and professional lives.”

While the for-credit clinic is funded by the Law School, many of the pro bono clinic costs—including private investigators, travel expenses, and copying court files—have been paid for with donations. This year, private support is also funding a third attorney for the Innocence Project. After national Innocence Project founding board member Jason Flom issued a matching challenge in October 2018, and with further support from alumni and friends, the pro bono clinic was able to hire a fellow, Juliet Hatchett ’15, to serve as a staff attorney.

“With a new staff attorney, we can all take on more cases, and the more students we can involve, the more people we can get released,” Enright said. “We’ve also started to address a policy component. This year we have a team of students who are going to work on nothing but policy reform. Our goal is always to release people who are innocent—but it would be great to be part of changing some of the things in Virginia that cause these wrongful convictions.”

Flom considers his contribution just one of the necessary components fueling this worthy cause: “It is a privilege for me to be able to be of service to [Innocence Project] clients, but I must say that the real heroes in this fight—aside from the exonorees themselves—are Enright and her staff, who work bravely and tirelessly against tremendous odds to right these wrongs,” he said. “Bravo to the UVA team. Let’s keep the momentum going!”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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