Notre Dame Law students and faculty work to overturn wrongful convictions
Thousands of people across the country are penned in prisons for crimes they didn’t commit. Want proof? More than 2,700 prisoners have been legally exonerated over the last 30 years, largely through the innocence work of crusading lawyers and legal students. Notre Dame law students, inspired by meeting a nearby example of this tragedy, pushed to get involved in overturning wrongful convictions. With guidance from Chicago attorney Elliot Slosar and faculty member Jimmy Gurulé, the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic is now on the case. Our series, Proving Innocence, takes you inside this legal effort through a handful of individual stories.
A Club Becomes a Class
Episode One traces the origins of the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic’s rapid growth over the last four years. It began as a student volunteer club in 2016 with some awareness and advocacy events.
The students launched into action after a visit from Keith Cooper, the only person in Indiana history to receive a governor’s pardon based on actual innocence, and his attorney, Elliot Slosar. They focused their legal assistance on Slosar’s cases in Elkhart, Indiana, a city about a half hour from Notre Dame’s campus. After recruiting faculty member Jimmy Gurulé, their efforts turned into a class and this year into the University’s sixth legal clinic.
Club founder and first president Tia Paulette guides listeners through this evolution.
Tall, Thin and Black
In Episode Two, we hear the story of Keith Cooper’s 20-year odyssey to clear his name of a crime he didn’t commit in a town he hardly knew.
Cooper tells the story in his words, starting with his arrest in 1997 based on a description of a crime by someone tall, thin and black. Mistaken witness identifications led to a speedy bench-trial conviction and a 40-year sentence.
New scientific evidence weakened the case against Cooper, and in 2006 he chose to give up his claim to innocence so he could help his struggling family. It took another 11 years of struggle to win the first pardon based on actual innocence in Indiana history.
Gentle Giant Finally Free
Andy Royer confessed in 2003 to strangling a 94-year-old woman who lived in his apartment building in Elkhart, Indiana. But Royer, who has mental challenges that make him seem childlike despite his huge size, then asked if he could just go home.
Confessions are convincing to juries. Most people are surprised to learn that they are sometimes given by the innocent. Royer was convicted and given a sentence of 55 years. After three earlier attempts failed, the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic in April won his release after 16 years – the first of what law students and faculty leaders hope are a string of successful petitions.
In Episode Three, we hear about Royer’s legal troubles from his mother, himself and his attorney. But our main guide is former Notre Dame law student Paula Ortiz Cardona, who worked on his case during her three years on campus.