When I was assigned my first case at the Illinois Innocence Project as a student at the University of Illinois Springfield, I had no idea I would see that client walk out of prison just a few years later.
Jennifer McMullan was 19 when she was wrongfully convicted of murder and attempted robbery in 2002 based on the "theory of accountability," where a person can be found guilty of acts committed by others. I had just begun volunteering with IIP and was only 19 myself when we met. Jennifer had been wrongfully incarcerated for 17 years. I remember so vividly realizing she had been in prison for essentially my entire life.
It was a freezing day in central Illinois when I headed to Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln with two IIP attorneys. I was a sophomore and felt so fortunate to be included on a legal visit with a client. This was the type of experiential learning I had been searching for in my young career. IIP truly understands the value of bringing students on legal visits, introducing them to the legal and emotional complexities of wrongful conviction.
When we arrived, I was startled by the prison's isolation. The huge, windowless block of concrete surrounded by fences topped with concertina wire felt frozen in time. The heat was broken in the legal visit room, so the attorneys and I huddled together while we waited for Jennifer. I remember seeing the cold fog of my breath when I introduced myself to her. Jennifer's quiet kindness filled the room. When I told her I was an athlete at UIS, she said one day she would be in the stands cheering me on. I was struck by her ability to hold love and warmth in her heart, despite everything she had been through.
I left the prison shaped by the heavy reality that, as we drove away, Jennifer remained behind.
Back in the office, I dove into Jennifer's case. Red flags of wrongful conviction were scattered across her story, such as her false "confession" and a lack of physical evidence connecting her to the crime. I read trial transcripts, police reports and appellate documents. And I kept in touch with Jennifer.
While IIP attorneys continued working on her case, I reviewed applications for assistance and wrote legal memos. I worked alongside staff at IIP and the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to develop our Wrongful Conviction Avoidance training program for police recruits and cadets in Illinois.
I got to visit Jennifer again on a non-legal wellness visit. Wellness visits are part of what makes IIP so special, prioritizing not only legal but also emotional support for our clients. My supervisor and I spent the afternoon visiting with Jennifer, learning about her close family relationships and passion for art. This visit solidified my understanding of the gravity of IIP's work and the urgency of reuniting Jennifer with her family.
The modern innocence movement is closer to home than one might think. Housed at UIS, IIP is the only innocence project in the nation that utilizes undergraduate students in our fight for justice. I became one of those students, as a volunteer and then an intern. I realized I could not leave our clients and cases when I graduated from UIS in the spring, so I stayed. I'm proud to say we have litigated the exoneration and/or release of 22 innocent clients over the past 21 years.
Jennifer was released two years after our first meeting. I was there on the day she walked out of prison, alongside her family, friends, attorneys, supporters and even IIP exoneree Angel Gonzalez, who tries to join us at the releases of our clients. Since then, I have seen Jennifer work hard to rebuild the life she should have had all along.
At the center of this story is the value of experiential learning and how it fuels the next generation of compassionate legal professionals. I can hardly seem to drag myself away from innocence work, largely because of the clients I have met and the applications I have read. I can no longer imagine a career path outside of law school, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the IIP attorneys I look up to every day.
Taryn Servaes is a recent UIS graduate who remains involved with the Illinois Innocence Project. On Oct. 15, IIP will host its Defenders of the Innocent fundraising event at Danenberger Family Vineyards, featuring the Exoneree Band with special guest Amanda Knox. Tickets are $100. Details and online registration are at go.uis.edu/DOI2022.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Experiential learning fuels next generation of legal professionals