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Innocence clinic held at UNT

Diane Xavier | 7/9/2013, 2:56 a.m.
In the past 24 years, more than 2,000 people in the United States have been falsely convicted of a crime, ...
Erika Estes

The Dallas Examiner

In the past 24 years, more than 2,000 people in the United States have been falsely convicted of a crime, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Erika Estes, founder of Teens in Crisis, hopes to reduce that number.

Estes helped start a program at the University of North Texas in Dallas to help those prisoners who are wrongfully convicted of a crime.

The course, called the UNT Innocence Clinic, was led by professor LaCrisia Gilbert. Students in the class worked with Dallas County Public Defender’s Office Chief Public Defender Lynn Pride-Richardson and Assistant Public Defender Julie Doucet to help those prisoners who felt they were wrongfully convicted and who are claiming innocence.

“There are a lot of innocent people in jail,” Estes said. “I think there are a lot of innocent people in jail because they cannot afford proper representation. A lot of people take plea bargains since they don’t have the money to afford an attorney who can defend them.”

Estes hosted a ceremony this spring at Grand Homes in Grand Prairie to honor those students who completed the course.

“We hosted a recognition ceremony honoring all the wonderful students that participated in the Innocence Project and also to thank Mrs. Doucet and Mrs. Richardson for giving us an opportunity to be a part of their Innocence Project,” Estes said.

Estes said she was encouraged to help start the program at UNT Dallas.

“As a student at UNT Dallas, I was approached by president of the school, Dr. John Price,” she said. “He asked me to help him with a project he had been working on for the students to come work with the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office.”

Estes said there is a lot of work involved in the project.

“What we do as students each semester is a group of us are chosen by professor Gilbert to work with Mrs. Richardson and Mrs. Doucet,” she said. “We come in with Julie and she gives us a case. We brief the case and learn everything about the case that she presents in the document. We all evaluate the case on whether or not we think the client is innocent and as a group we ask questions about why we think the client is innocent or why he or she is claiming innocence.”

Estes said the students can only deal with the facts and once that is established in a case, they move forward to write the prisoners to ask them any questions that they think will help them prove their case more and to claim for their innocence.

“Once they write us back, Mrs. Julie brings us back together again and we discuss our findings and we discuss what the prisoner wrote to us,” Estes said. “Mrs. Julie takes the case to move forward with the exoneration.”

Gilbert said she is proud of her students.

“The program is really great because we get to hear from inmates that are innocent and we try to work with them on getting exonerated,” Gilbert said. “I use my mediation students because they have great techniques for questioning so that they get to write letters to inmates and ask them questions to find out if they truly want to say that they are innocent.”