Journalism students seek to free innocent prisoners

Reviewing case files helps journalists set records straight.

By Emma Davie


Journalists are helping free the wrongfully convicted.
Working on prisoners’ files reveals that the law sometimes makes mistakes. (Photo: Emma Davie)

Journalists volunteer help, but are not always wanted

By Emma Davie

George Berridge often spent 12-hour days absorbed in documents, tucked away in a room.  This didn’t bother him. It could have been worse. He could have been the subject of the files he examined.

He could have been sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Berridge spent the final two years of his journalism undergraduate degree working with the Innocence Project at the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom. The Innocence Project aims to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.

Berridge says it was difficult to tame his curiosity. “It would be like, ‘OK, I’ll just look at one more box file and then I’ll go home.’ But then you’ll find something in that box file that will be really interesting, and you’ll think, ‘well, I wonder if that adds up with something I saw in something else a couple of days ago.’ You can stay in that loop for hours.”

Now a freelance writer, Berridge left the Innocence Project in spring 2013. Leaving, he struggled to let go of the information he had gathered. After two years he had about 60,000 words of notes and an 8,500-word dissertation. Because of the confidentiality of these cases, he couldn’t keep anything.

“I really struggled to pull myself away from the case I was involved in,” he says. “There’s still so much left uncovered, and there’s still so much left to do.”

While Berridge has moved on, the prisoners stay inside.

“Most of them will die as criminals,” he says. “When you think about it, straight away it makes me want to go back and do journalism. Right now.”

Lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, after several years studying the use of DNA testing, wanted to use DNA evidence to prove prisoners innocent. In New York, in 1992, they created the Innocence Project.

Innocence Projects were first introduced to journalism schools  in 1999 at Northwestern University in Chicago. Project volunteers spend hours reviewing case files, speaking with witnesses. and using DNA or new evidence to find miscarriages of justice. By investigating wrongful convictions, journalism students help someone who doesn’t have a voice.

Brian Thornton brought the Innocence Project to Winchester in 2009. He says for journalism students it isn’t just about freeing prisoners. The students also receive great training. “To question and to not trust on face value everything the establishment tells you… (students) will have a very different attitude to miscarriages of justice than people have now.

“In the movies, you’re constantly getting shot at and tumbling out of cars as a journalist. But what happens as an investigative journalist is that you just read paper, loads of papers… This is where the truth is.”

They’ll understand “the law sometimes makes mistakes,” says Thornton.

Alec Klein, director of the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern, also believes students gain valuable journalistic training. Klein says students learn to be ethical journalists capable of accessing public records, tracking elusive sources and interviewing reluctant witnesses.

“They’ve learned how to piece together a complex puzzle and present their findings in a fair, accurate and thorough way. It’s possible, too, that their work can have, and has had, tremendous impact.”

[pullquote]”We go to where the information leads us. We are in search of the truth, whatever that truth is.”
– Alec Klein, Northwestern University[/pullquote]

Klein says it’s difficult to gain access to police documents and court records, and often they’re crucial to understanding a case. Students complete Freedom of Information requests, and appeal to higher courts if denied access.

Klein says, “We go where the information leads us. We are in search of the truth, whatever that truth is. We are not advocates, so our job is to simply shed light on whatever we find. We put it out there, but then other forces have to come into play for there to be more action.”

Today four journalism schools have students involved with wrongful conviction projects. The other two are the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Due to the time and energy invested in these projects, students run the risk of becoming emotionally attached.

Anna Bisaro, a Northwestern graduate student working on her masters of science in journalism, says her most difficult experience was visiting the prison. “This situation really hit me hard. Just listening to this woman talk about how much she missed her kids… was really hard to handle.”

Bisaro says dealing with people “who have suffered real tragedy and real loss – from the victim’s family to the person who’s in prison,” can be taxing.

Bisaro took the investigative reporting class at Northwestern as an undergraduate in 2013. After graduation Bisaro was hired to continue working on the case.

Despite the noble work, and the training gained through this project, four journalism schools have closed their doors to wrongful conviction projects in the past three years.

In 2013 the Innocence Institute at Point Park University in Pittsburgh was cut due to lack of funding. According to its website, since 2001 students had helped reverse 14 convictions. The former director, Bill Moushey, declined an interview, saying in an email, “I’m not sure I want to dredge up the ill feelings I have about the closure.”

The University of British Columbia was the only Canadian journalism school involved with the project, but in September 2013 the journalism school ended the program. Professor Tamara Levy, founder and director of the Innocence Project at UBC, started the project for law students in 2007. In 2010, after hearing about various collaborations with journalism schools, she connected with the university’s journalism department and started collaborating with a handful of students.

This lasted for three years. While the project is still ongoing for law students, Levy says the involvement of journalism students didn’t work. She says many students felt over their heads with legal aspects, and struggled to fit the work into their schedules.

Levy also says the journalism school found it difficult to designate a staff member for the project. When no one in the journalism department volunteered, the school hired a CBC reporter. Due to professional restrictions, the reporter couldn’t sign the non-disclosure agreement, so journalism students couldn’t work on the same cases as Levy’s law students. “It just became very complicated,” Levy says.

Though the University of British Columbia had the only Canadian journalism school involved, University of Ottawa, McGill University and York University all offer Innocence Projects for law students. The Innocence Project at York project was involved with exonerating one person.

In the United States there were 22 exonerations in 2012 alone. Of the 311 DNA exonerations since 1989, Innocence Projects were involved with securing 171.

According to Levy Canada’s privacy laws – and legal system – make the process more difficult. Information is harder to access, so the process takes longer.

Prisoners claiming innocence in Canada can apply for a ministerial review of their case. Their applications go to the Criminal Conviction Review Group (CCRG), part of the federal Department of Justice. CCRG lawyers review and investigate each application, and then make recommendiations to the Minister, who has the power to order a new trial or refer the matter to the Court of Appeal.

The non-profit Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted helps prisoners prepare applications to be sent to the CCRG . According to its website, the Toronto-based association’s primary purpose “is to review and support claims of innocence in homicide cases.” The Association website lists 43 people released from prison since 1984 based on wrongful conviction.

Journalism schools may be on the verge of losing participation with the Innocence Projects. In 2012, the Innocence Network – an affiliation of Innocence organizations around the world – decided to deal exclusively with law clinics. This was because lawyers and journalists have two different ethical practices.

[pullquote]”We still uncover, with depressing regularity, significant errors within the justice system.”

– Archibald Kaiser, Dalhousie University[/pullquote]

Paul Cates, the communications director at Innocence Project headquarters in New York, says, “Lawyers are representing a client and they have obligations to those clients, whereas journalists are not bound by the same constraints. They’re actually just looking to get to the truth.”

Cates says the Innocence Network was not attempting to keep journalists out of such ventures. “Journalists, historically, have played a very important role in helping to overturn wrongful convictions through their investigative journalism,” says Cates. “We hope that they will continue to do so.”

In the U.S. today 27 universities are hosting Innocence Projects. Journalism schools are involved with only two.

Yet journalism has not given up on the wrongful conviction projects completely. In June 2013 Oklahoma Journalists for Justice, a non-profit organization based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, opened its doors to help investigate wrongful convictions. While they aren’t affiliated with a university, executive director Kevin Armstrong says starting in January 2014 journalism students will become involved.

Not everyone believes this is a good thing.

Journalist Charlotte Allen in Washington, D.C., says journalism schools put themselves into a difficult position when becoming involved with legal advocacy. “Journalism students aren’t really getting trained in journalism,” says Allen. “They’re getting trained in collecting evidence for lawyers, and that isn’t journalism.”

Professor Archibald Kaiser in front on the Dalhousie Weldon Law Building in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Dalhousie Professor Archibald Kaiser. (Photo: Emma Davie)

Allen wrote two articles, one in 2009 and the other in 2011, about the Northwestern Justice Project. Both articles focused on when David Protess was the director. Allen says his students weren’t publicizing their findings, but handing files directly to the lawyers of the case they were investigating. Protess was removed as the director in 2011.

Archibald Kaiser, a law professor at Dalhousie University, says wrongful convictions “are not a thing of the past… We still uncover, with depressing regularity, significant errors within the justice system that have caused people to be wrongfully convicted.”

Melissa Embser-Herbert is a sociology professor currently at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and a former University of New Brunswick professor. She is returning to Canada, to St. Thomas University in Fredericton, in 2014, and hopes to start an Atlantic Canada Justice Project. She says just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done – and Canadians shouldn’t ignore the problem.

“If I were the one person who’d been wrongfully convicted and sitting in prison for years, I would certainly feel like my one case was justification enough.”

Berridge will tell you from his experience at the University of Winchester: journalism students have a role to play.

“That’s the job of the journalist really, is to investigate something… that’s what we do.”


Edit/Layout by Emily Marshall

King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.