FSU students volunteer for Innocence Project May 15, 2003 Regular News FSU students volunteer for Innocence Project More than 30 law students at Florida State University are eager to help free wrongly convicted prisoners by doing research for the Innocence Project’s new office in Tallahassee.“You have a chance to make a huge difference in people’s lives,” New York attorney Barry Scheck told FSU law students April 10, announcing the creation of a Florida branch of the nonprofit legal clinic he co-founded that uses DNA tests to challenge convictions. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate 127 inmates across the country, including two in Florida.“Being responsible for an innocent person walking out of prison would be a highlight in the lives of most lawyers. You have a chance to see your legal career peak early.”FSU law Professor Meg Baldwin will teach a course this summer on researching inmate claims and will coordinate pro bono work of reviewing files and evidence. Students have three ways to become involved in the project, Baldwin said:• Take a course that combines classroom instruction with hands-on research.• Volunteer to review actual files.• Apply for two clerkships funded by FSU’s Center for Human Rights, located near the law school on Jefferson Street.“This is a wonderful opportunity for our law students to learn how wrongful convictions occur and be part of the solution for Florida inmates who are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of,” Baldwin said.Training sessions for lawyers interested in offering pro bono services to the Innocence Project may also be offered at the law school.Scheck, co-director of New York’s Cordoza Law School-based Innocence Project who gained prominence as the DNA expert on the O.J. Simpson murder defense team, said he wanted a presence in Florida for two reasons:“The first is that this state has the third largest inmate population in the country, and we’ve identified more than 500 cases where DNA evidence might affect a conviction,” Scheck said.“The second reason is that all the criminal appeals records are in Tallahassee, and the law school provides us with a great resource of research talent.”The clock is ticking.Florida is one of 30 states that passed legislation providing a review process of prison inmates who believe they can prove their innocence through DNA testing. However, legislation passed during the 2001 session allows Florida prisoners only until October 2003 to file a claim.“Needless to say, we have a huge job ahead of us,” said Scheck, who also spent time lobbying legislators and Attorney General Charlie Crist for support in extending that deadline.Although the Innocence Project deals exclusively with claims involving DNA evidence, Scheck said he hopes that success in genetic testing will focus attention on other areas of criminal evidence. Noting that a number of crime labs, including one in Houston, have been shut down recently for poor quality work, Scheck said standards are inconsistent from state to state.“If the kind of attention we’re paying to DNA were applied to other aspects of criminal evidence, I think you would see a lot more innocent people being released from prison,” he said.The Florida Innocence Project will be directed by Jenny Greenberg, a 1988 FSU law graduate and former director of the Battered Women’s Clemency Project and the Volunteer Lawyers Resource Center. She will be responsible for fundraising and helping decide which cases will be researched.“I would say that her job is pretty overwhelming,” Scheck said.Already, in the basement of the Collins Building in downtown Tallahassee, members of the Innocence Project are poring over hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, searching for details of biological evidence – such as blood, semen, and saliva – that could be tested for DNA.Of more than 1,000 Florida prisoners who wrote to the New York office asking for help, the Innocence Project decided to investigate about 400.Recently, Greenberg, Huy Dao, the Innocence Project’s assistant director, and Sheila Meehan, an administrator for the Holland & Knight law firm’s Tallahassee office, were plunging into boxes of records, some piled five feet high.David Menschel, one of the project’s staff attorneys in New York, called the challenge in Florida “Herculean.”“It’s almost impossible to compare this to any other state,” Menschel said. “These aren’t simple cases.. . . What could very well take as long as a decade, we have to do in a few months.”What the Innocence Project already has managed to do in Florida is clear Frank Lee Smith of a 1985 murder, after he had already died of cancer in prison in 2000.And after serving 22 years of several life sentences for multiple murders in South Florida, Jerry Frank Townsend walked out of prison a free man in 2001.The project’s Web page — at www.innocenceproject.org – said it is a non-profit legal clinic that “only handles cases where postconviction DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence. As a clinic, students handle the case work while supervised by a team of attorneys and clinic staff.