Innocence Project Client’s Story Inspires $100,000 Donation

Sheehy Family Says Gift Is in Spirit of Black Lives Matter Movement
Deirdre Enright, Messiah Johnson and Jennifer Givens

Professors Deirdre Enright ’92 and Jennifer Givens of the Innocence Project at UVA Law stand with client Messiah Johnson after his conditional release from prison in 2018. Photo by Maire Enright Lee

January 13, 2021

Because of the moving story of a client the group helped free, the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law will benefit from a $100,000 donation from two owners of the Virginia-based Sheehy Auto Stores.

The Innocence Project’s clinical efforts on behalf of client Messiah Johnson resulted in his April 2018 conditional release from prison. Johnson, who the project says was wrongfully convicted of a 1998 armed robbery of a Norfolk beauty salon, had been sentenced to 132 years in prison, although he had an alibi for the night in question and has always denied any involvement in the crime. His claim of innocence was bolstered by another man's confession.

Messiah Johnson and Deirdre Enright
Messiah Johnson and Deirdre Enright at Gonzaga College High School

At a Gonzaga College High School event attended by the Sheehy family in November 2019, Johnson shared the story of how he lost 20 years of his life due to the false conviction.

Brothers Paul and Vince Sheehy, the director and CEO, respectively, of the Fair Lakes, Virginia-based auto sales company, made the donation commitment after being inspired by the event and due to their shared desire to help in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Paul Sheehy is an alumnus of the high school and member of its board. He and his family members “were profoundly moved by Messiah’s story and the disproportionate number of people of color who are wrongfully convicted,” clinic directors Deirdre Enright ’92 and Jennifer Givens said in a statement.

The Sheehys’ “generous donation will actually help secure the freedom of the next Messiah Johnson,” Enright said, adding that the money will go toward legal staffing.

In addition, Patricia Sheehy, sister of Paul and Vince, gifted $10,000 from her personal foundation immediately after the speaking event. 

The Innocence Project identifies, investigates and litigates cases of innocent men and women in Virginia’s prison system, while providing law students real-world experience handling cases.

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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