Students help correct wrongful convictions

In a new law clinic, students gain experience with litigation, parole work, clemency cases and more as they help those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Illustration by Jennifer Wessler.

Kevin Strickland and Michael Politte are now free men thanks in part to the efforts of law students in Washington University’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic. 

Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, and Megan Crane, co-director of the Missouri office of the MacArthur Justice Center, began the clinic at the School of Law in fall 2021 to help budding lawyers — including future prosecutors — understand the strengths and weakness of the criminal justice system. The only check on the system, Bushnell says, is provided by nonprofits like theirs and initiatives like the Wrongful Conviction Clinic. 

“This is how the criminal legal system works,” Bushnell says. “The check isn’t something the state has provided; it’s what we’re providing, with the help of students. They’re critical to it, and they’ll go into the world knowing that the safety valve is them.”

Strickland was convicted in the 1978 murder of three people in Kansas City, Missouri. The lone witness later said she had made a mistake, the other men convicted in the deaths said Strickland was not involved, and there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. Thanks to a new Missouri law that allows prosecutors to correct wrongful convictions, the Jackson County prosecutor asked for a judicial review of Strickland’s case. Strickland was freed in November 2021 after more than 43 years in prison.

Clinic students contributed to Strickland’s release by listening to hundreds of hours of recordings dumped on the defense team just days before a hearing and helping draft the closing argument. The law students also got to know Strickland while working on his case. 

“They met him at the hearing while he was incarcerated and still in shackles,” Bushnell says. “And they spent four days with him at the hearing, talking to him and being there with him through that whole process. And when he went home, they were able to connect with him as well.” 

In Politte’s case, clinic students are working to prove his innocence; but in the meantime, they were able to use a new Missouri juvenile justice law to secure his parole. In 1998, police accused 14-year-old Politte of killing his mother. She’d been struck in the head with an unknown object and lit on fire in the home they shared 75 miles south of St. Louis. He was sentenced to life in prison, but the new law makes all juvenile offenders eligible for parole after serving 15 years, in recognition that youth should not be sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

“It was very lucky timing that students were able to work on the Politte case extensively last semester [fall 2021],” Crane says. “Students helped prepare him for parole and prepared the materials for his hearing.” Politte was granted parole in January and released April 22.

Clinic student Madeleine Denny says Politte’s parole was the most rewarding moment of the clinic for her. “Victories can be hard to come by in this line of work, and, though we’re still fighting for his exoneration, I was beyond relieved to hear that he would be with his family again soon,” she says.

As part of their work to prove Politte’s innocence, students interviewed jurors from his original trial in Washington County, Missouri, and several jurors signed affidavits declaring that Politte shouldn’t have been convicted. 

“This class has taught me to think outside of the box, to strain for solutions even when they seem impossible,” Denny says. “The cases we take will most often both predate and outlive our time in the clinic. To enjoy this work, we have to accept that we will have to wait, most likely years, to see the ultimate outcome.”

As they gain real-world experience with litigation, parole work, clemency cases, media and policy, students tell Crane and Bushnell that the clinic is making the law come alive. “This is what they came to law school to learn how to do,” Bushnell says.

Politte is grateful to the WashU students and other law students who helped secure his freedom. “It’s been a blessing to work with so many law students over the years,” he says. “I want to share my story with the next generation — law students and others — who will have the power to change the process and make sure that criminal procedures are fair and just.”

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