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Innocence Project celebrates past success, worries about future prospects

Deirdre Enright
UVA's Innocence Project founder Deirdre Enright says the group set a record with nine clients freed during the last six months of the Northam administration.

Some experts say up to 11 percent of prisoners were convicted of crimes they did not commit, and the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice at UVA says it’s really hard for someone to get out once they’ve been sentenced. Deirdre Enright, who founded the Innocence Project more than a decade ago, says there are now three lawyers available to assist.

“There’s still a wait list, but it’s not 700 or 800, which is what it was in the very beginning," she says, "and that’s just the people who applied. We’ve had clients who never even applied, but somebody else walked into a police station and confessed.”

If the Innocence Project can’t help, prisoners can try to find an attorney in the private sector, but very few take such cases, and they’re not cheap.

“Most of them charge $30,000 upfront to review your case," Enright explains. "Then if you get a hearing it’s another $30,000 and court costs.”

In Virginia, parole is possible for prisoners over the age of 60 if they’ve served a enough time, and people who committed crimes before 1995 are eligible. The parole board also makes recommendations on requests for pardons from the governor, but the legislature rejected all four of Glenn Youngkin’s nominees, and Enright says his new list is not promising for those who want clemency. Two are former prosecutors, one is a state trooper and a fourth was married to an officer killed in the line of duty.

UVA's law school will host Speaking of Injustice: A Night with Virginia's Wrongfully Convicted on April 20 from 5-7 p.m.

Freed clients Lamar Barnes, Suge Knight, James Lamont Madison, Gilbert Merritt, Emerson Stevens and Jervon Tillman will share their experiences at a fundraiser for the Innocence Project at UVA Law. Professor Deirdre Enright ’92, the founding director of UVA Law’s Innocence Project Clinic, and current directors and Professors Jennifer Givens and Juliet Hatchett ’15 will also participate. Proceeds will go toward continuing the work of students and attorneys at UVA Law in securing freedom for wrongfully convicted people. Sponsorships are tax-deductible through the UVA Law School Foundation. Appetizers and refreshments will be served.

For more information, contact: Serena Premjee — spremjee@law.virginia.edu

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief