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JLASC symposium: "A House Divided: Is Justice Just for the Innocent?"

November 04, 2011

By Kathryn Siegel C'12

David Rudovsky introduces the guest speakers
David Rudovsky introduces the guest speakers

On November 3, criminal justice practitioners Abbe Smith and Tucker Carrington convened in Gittis Hall’s Kushner Classroom to debate the value of innocence projects versus overall systemic reform. The event, titled “A House Divided: Is Justice Just for the Innocent?”, was sponsored by the Journal of Law and Social Change (JLASC), which will feature articles by both speakers on the subject in its December publication. Abbe Smith currently directs the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown Law School, while Tucker Carrington is the first director of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi Law School. Penn’s criminal law professor David Rudovsky opened the event with introductions of Smith and Carrington before giving them the floor.

“Can you believe I’m complaining about innocence projects? I mean, for God’s sake, is nothing sacred?” Smith spoke first, commending the noble purpose of projects like Carrington’s. “I want to be clear that I believe in the work of innocence projects” in exonerating innocent people, she said.

She then continued to explain her three major arguments against them. First, she noted a sense of “self-righteousness and superiority” that pervades innocence projects, as though guilty persons are “beneath” the aid of lawyers. Second, she maintained that the focus on “factual innocence,” such as DNA exonerations, draw too hard a line between guilt and innocence. A defendant can be “not guilty” without being completely blameless, she reminds the audience.

Third, she argued that innocence project clinics in law schools divert too many resources and “ill prepare students for work in criminal law in a time of mass incarceration.” With 2.3 million Americans in prison, Smith suggested that reforming the large-scale approach to criminal justice is a more important issue than exonerating the few hundred who have been wrongly convicted. “Let’s not forget about the guilty,” she said.

Tucker Carrington
Tucker Carrington

Carrington, a former student of Smith’s, then presented his rebuttal with a series of anecdotes drawn from his early work in New Orleans and later in Mississippi. He described a case in the “mean place” of New Orleans’ Jefferson parish, where his client had been convicted of homicide and jailed for 18 years. Despite evidence that proved him factually innocent, the judge and prosecutor urged Carrington and his co-counsel to strike a deal to avoid re-opening the trial. With this and other stories, Carrington points out that dishonesty, “prosecutorial misconduct, and forensic fraud” too often lead to unfair convictions.

He also directly addressed Smith’s three concerns. As far as self-righteousness on the part of innocence projects, “there is no doubt a surfeit of arrogance... but we haven’t exactly cornered the market on that,” Carrington said. Besides, he added, the systemic reforms that innocence projects also seek, such as legislative changes, would benefit both the innocent and the guilty. He also conceded the pitfalls of reliance on strictly factual innocence as a pillar of the projects’ work. But he defended his clinic at University of Mississippi Law School as an enlightening experience for students that, contrary to Smith’s claim, encourages them to understand their clients’ humanity.

To conclude, Carrington reiterated the hope and affirmation that innocence project cases provide. “[They] have captured public’s attention, imagination and conception of justice,” he said. “Something about them just touches people.”

Following their talks, Professor Rudovsky welcomed questions from the audience, beginning with two of his own. He and other listeners inquired about how innocence projects and more all-encompassing reforms could work together to affect change. While neither could answer definitively, Smith did acknowledge a certain competition between the two.

“Innocence projects are eating up funds that might be better used for criminal defense programs or death penalty resource centers,” she responded. Carrington agreed that “the innocence project hasn’t changed much of what is wrong with the system as a whole,” such as mass incarceration, “but that’s not what we bargained for anyway.”

Following the Q&A, some early prints of Smith’s and Carrington’s JLASC articles were made available to the audience, and a light reception was provided for attendees in the Great Hall.

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