Innocence Clinic Leaders Win UVA’s Collaborative Excellence in Public Service Award
The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law is a picture of high-stakes collaboration in action, with 14 clinic students, two directors and multiple witnesses, prosecutors and defense attorneys working together — against time — to free the wrongly convicted.
The University’s Public Service Awards Committee recognized the clinic’s achievements when it awarded its longtime leaders Professors Deirdre Enright ’92 and Jennifer L. Givens one of this year’s Collaborative Excellence in Public Service Awards. The duo were recognized at a reception May 9.
Enright started the Innocence Project at UVA Law in 2008; Givens joined her as legal director in 2015, and now serves as director. After stepping down from the clinic over the summer, Enright moved over to run a new criminal justice policy clinic she launched in January, the Project for Informed Reform. (Juliet Hatchett ’15 joined the Innocence Project as associate director in August.) Enright is also director of the Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice, alongside Professor Rachel Harmon.
In the past calendar year, the project won the release or exoneration of nine clients and won millions in compensation for six who were completely exonerated, representing the culmination of many years of work by the clinic.
“Collaboration is the soul of any good innocence project,” Enright wrote in a statement to the awards committee. “[W]e have little power to compel anyone to cooperate with us. The cases are not active in court, so we have no subpoena power. We are left to find ways to collaborate, some obvious and some obscure.”
In her own personal statement, Givens noted, “The failure to work collaboratively can stop a case in its tracks. Establishing relationships with police, prosecutors and crime victims is crucial to the ability to fully investigate our cases.”
Emerson Stevens, a Rappahannock fisherman convicted of abduction and murder, was one of three Innocence Project clients who received absolute pardons from the governor in a single month last year. He had been paroled after serving 32 years for a crime he maintained he did not commit. But he needed a pardon to return fully to society.
Enright and Givens helped create positive collaborative relationships with three different elected prosecutors, three sheriffs, many of Stevens’ jurors, one of the original investigators and a reporter for The Washingtonian magazine. Ultimately, the third sheriff located a box of exonerating evidence that had been missing for three decades.
“We were his first phone call,” Enright wrote.
In April, the governor approved a bill awarding Stevens $1.7 million in compensation for the wrongful incarceration.
“The clinic students get to be part of bending the arc toward justice, but they also learn that when they walk their client out of prison, the relief and glory of that moment belongs to a host of people who committed themselves to justice for Emerson Stevens,” Enright wrote.
Enright and Givens will each receive a $3,000 prize for the public service award, and the Innocence Project will receive an additional $3,000 to support the program’s continuing efforts.
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.