The Innocence Clinic is an intensive, two-semester course in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC). During the course, students represent incarcerated clients in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming who are claiming actual innocence.
With faculty support and supervision, Innocence Clinic students work with RMIC attorneys to investigate their clients’ innocence claims, and prepare those claims for litigation. Students learn traditional lawyering and advocacy skills that apply not only to other post-conviction and criminal work, but also civil litigation.
Innocence Clinic students visiting their clients at High Desert
During both semesters, the Innocence Clinic focuses on the way an innocence case is investigated and ultimately litigated, plus steps an attorney must take to competently handle the case at each stage.
Students are introduced to all aspects of innocence investigation and post-conviction process, including document collection and evaluation; client and witness interview; state and federal post-conviction remedies in both DNA and non-DNA cases; theory development; persuasive storytelling; policy developments; and life after exoneration.
In addition, the Innocence Clinic introduces students to the primary causes of wrongful convictions and gives them tools to investigate them. Topics include mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, incentivized witness testimony, forensic fraud, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel.
As part of the Innocence Clinic, students should expect to spend around 12 hours per week on clinic work. This includes 8-10 hours in the RMIC office; a twice-weekly seminar; supervision meetings; meetings with clients and witnesses; and field work with likely travel during Fall and Spring Break.
Most case travel involves multi-day trips to Las Vegas or Reno, Nevada. However, single-day or multi-day travel is also possible to Lovelock, Ely and Mesquite, Nev.; Ogden, Logan, St. George, Gunnison, Brigham City and Kanab, Utah; and Rawlins, Casper, Laramie, Cheyenne, and Torrington, Wyoming. In addition to travel during the breaks, some additional travel may occur during the year, but students will never be required to miss other classes. RMIC funds all travel including transportation costs, housing, meals and other necessary expenses, and RMIC attorneys supervise all travel.
Throughout both semesters, faculty and RMIC attorneys work closely with students and offer continuous, individualized, and goal-directed feedback and reflection opportunities. Students are encouraged and supported in setting and reaching their own learning goals.
- Expose students to all aspects of actual innocence claims including the substantive causes of wrongful convictions and the procedural mechanisms that allow for litigating those claims
- Give students basic competence to investigate and develop claims of actual innocence
- Provide students with a forum to discuss questions about and insights from their work
- Offer students the opportunity to develop essential and transferable lawyering skills including investigative methods, client and witness interviewing, creative and persuasive storytelling, theory development, and attorney-client relationship.
- Collecting, investigating and analyzing documents and evidence
- Researching, analyzing and synthesizing law and facts
- Interviewing and counseling clients
- Investigating facts and collecting data
- Solving complex problems
- Interacting with lawyers and non-lawyers
- Developing theory and theme
- Storytelling and narrative in advocacy
“The Innocence Clinic is top-notch. From attorneys to fellow students, the passion for overturning wrongful convictions is incredibly infectious. Not many internships through law school allow for students to travel to crime scenes, dig into complex criminal cases, interview clients and witnesses, and inspect physical evidence. That is what makes the Innocence Clinic unlike any other clinic at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law. Plus, you have an awesome chance to work with and get to know other students on a personal basis. The Innocence Clinic was a major highlight in my law school career.”
— Daniel R. Surfass, Trial Attorney, Salt Lake Legal Defender Association; SJQ Class of 2019
“The Innocence Clinic is an outstanding opportunity for aspiring prosecutors. I have been a misdemeanor prosecutor for nearly a decade, and often think about whether I would feel comfortable if the clinic reviewed the evidence and tactics I use in my cases. This viewpoint has made me a more ethical, thorough, and conscientious prosecutor. The clinic gave me an incredible respect for wielding the authority of the sovereign. I highly recommend the clinic to anyone who wants to be a prosecutor.”
— Nicholas Mills, Kaysville City Prosecutor, SJQ Class of 2011
Rocky Mountain Innocence Center
Innocence Clinic students have helped the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center exonerate seven people, including DeMarlo Berry, Debra Brown, Bruce Dallas Goodman, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Landry, Harry Miller and Christopher Wickham.
To learn more about RMIC, the staff, exonerees and current cases, visit rminnocence.org. And to stay on top of RMIC events, casework and other news follow RMIC on social media.
My SJQ Story
“I ultimately chose to attend the S.J. Quinney College of Law because of their in-house Innocence Clinic, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. So, to say I was excited when I was selected to work with RMIC during my 2L year would be an understatement. The U.S. has a broken criminal justice system that's being propped up by the prison industrial complex. Despite making up 4.25% of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 22% of the world’s prison population. And an estimate of 2.3% to 5% of this prison population is wrongfully convicted. So, with the number of incarcerated Americans being approximately 2.3 million, by that estimate, 53,000 to 115,000 people may be incarcerated because of wrongful conviction. Sadly, due to structural injustice and institutional racism, the people sucked into this broken system are more likely to be BIPOC. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, along with other great innocence groups nationwide, are doing everything they can to correct these wrongs, prevent future injustices, and bring the wrongfully convicted home. It sounds cliche, but it is gratifying to be a part of something bigger and more important than, well, anything else.
At the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, I am assigned a client who is claiming factual innocence. I provide an innocence investigation in furtherance of my client's innocence claim. Innocence investigation entails: requesting documents from police departments, crime labs, and prosecuting offices, fine-combing through these documents, writing letters requesting the preservation of evidence, drafting DNA petitions, interviewing witnesses, visiting the crime scene, and supporting my wrongfully convicted client. As anyone can tell, working with RMIC is a unique hands-on and fulfilling experience that law students cannot get anywhere else. This experience has shaped my law school education by making me a better student, a better advocate for justice, and a more empathetic person.
I am confident that I will rely on what I have learned during my time with RMIC and apply it every day to help me create a fulfilling career in criminal law. Our criminal justice system's strength depends on its accuracy—its ability to convict the guilty reasonably and fairly and clear the innocent. Right now, more than half of all wrongful criminal convictions are caused by government misconduct. Identifying and understanding the causes of wrongful convictions is critical to preventing them at the onset, maintaining the integrity of our justice system, lobbying legislatures for equitable criminal justice policies, and above all, making sure all future clients are justly treated under the law.”
— Ken Peterson, Research Fellow, James E. Faust Law Library, Juris Doctor Candidate, Class of 2022