Suffolk Law School students
are familiar with William Blackstone’s immortal formulation that “the law
holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party
suffer.” Now, with the arrival on campus of the New England Innocence Project, they
can continue to team closely with professors, legal experts and previously exonerated
prisoners to rescue unjustly convicted men and women from suffering behind bars.
More than 100 people gathered at the law school on October 15 to formally welcome the Innocence Project to Suffolk during an upbeat and energizing reception at which Suffolk President Margaret McKenna committed the university to “helping exonerate every innocent person” imprisoned in New England. The event also showcased successful pro bono efforts by Suffolk students and alumni to help free two men who had spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
One of those men, Raymond Tempest, was convicted in 1992 in the murder of a young woman and the violent attack on another in Woonsocket, R.I. In 2011, Suffolk students reviewed his case as part of a seminar on the Innocence Project taught by Professor Stephanie Roberts Hartung, who is also a member of the project’s board of trustees.
One of her students, Jessica M. Lee JD’12, took the lead, joining with more than a dozen Suffolk peers to review transcripts and examine police documents, photos, and other material from Tempest’s murder case. They also sought additional DNA testing, visited Tempest in prison, and researched and drafted legal documents under the supervision of Hartung, the Boston law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and the project’s veteran staffers.
“We quickly saw how weak the evidence was against our client,” said Lee, who is now a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, working out of the Salem District and Superior Court office. “It was not very hard to poke holes in the case,” she added. A Providence Superior Court judge vacated Tempest’s conviction in June and he was released in September after serving 23 years.
The experience had a profound impact on Lee’s view of the work sometimes done by police investigators and prosecutors. “I guess I was naïve,” she said. “But I was really struck by all the wrong steps the cops took, how they wanted to convict him so badly that they were willing to imprison the wrong person to close the case.”
She added that she hoped the permanent presence of the Innocence Project on the seventh floor of the law school would leave a strong impression on students seeking to become prosecutors. “It’s a good lesson in humanity,” she said. “It’s a real mistake to want to judge a person based on the crimes they are accused of rather than the evidence.”
Also on hand were two 2015 law students, Nicole A. Faille and Heather LeCount, who worked with Hartung and the Innocence Project on an amicus brief filed before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. They joined forces on behalf of Ronjon Cameron, a Berskshire County resident who was wrongly convicted of rape in 2002.
Cameron spent 14 years behind bars despite the discovery of DNA
evidence in 2006 that excluded him as a suspect. Faille and LeCount’s efforts
helped persuade a single justice of the SJC to release him in June pending a
hearing on his request for a new trial. At oral arguments before the SJC in
September, Cameron met Faille and Hartung for the first time.
“They don’t just exonerate people, they push for ways to prevent this from happening to other people,” Cameron said of the collaboration. Hartung and her students said that while the legal work was engrossing, they enjoyed forging bonds with the victims of wrongful prosecution, who feel abandoned and hopeless until someone agrees to take up their cause.
As Lee put it: “My favorite part of the experience was meeting and connecting with the person behind bars. These are deserving people who really need our help.”