Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld addresses the 2012 Innocence Network Conference as co-founder Barry Scheck looks on

Celebration of Innocence at School of Law

National Innocence Network Conference held at UMKC

The UMKC School of Law served as host to the 2012 Innocence Network Conference, a three-day event celebrating the determination of more than 100 exonerees who have spent time in prison for crimes they did not commit and the lawyers, students and volunteers who freed them. The conference featured appearances from Innocence Project co-founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, UMKC Professor of Law and keynote speaker Sean O’Brien, as well as a Saturday night performance by a band made up of exonerees.

UMKC Law School Dean Ellen Suni opened the on-campus portion of the conference with a welcome to all attendees at the UMKC Student Union.

“We here at UMKC are committed to justice and hands-on education for our students. Innocence work and clinics give the opportunity to do both of those things, to get justice for people who suffer what I think is one of the biggest wrongs anyone can suffer: to be incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit,” Suni said.

Suni, a strong supporter of the Innocence Network, has served two terms as president of the Midwestern Innocence Project (co-sponsor of the conference) and has litigated several exoneration cases in the appellate courts. She and others at UMKC helped establish the Midwest Innocence Project more than 10 years ago.

The Midwest organization is a member of The Innocence Network, a group of law schools, journalism schools and public defender offices across the country dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted. The group also works to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.

Exonerees, their guests, supporters and representatives of the Innocence Project spent the weekend sharing their stories in group settings as well as smaller sessions. More than 400 people, including more than 100 exonerees, attended the conference. The small-group sessions focused on the reliability of scientific evidence, DNA testing, the role of journalism in securing exonerations, psychological consequences of wrongful convictions and lifestyle guidance for exonerees returning to life outside of prison.

For some, the conference serves as the only chance to meet people who had been through their same struggles. Over the past 10 years, friendships have been formed through the conference, and the air of celebration carried throughout the weekend.

“This is a chance to reflect on where we’ve been, stop and look at where we are now and reflect on where we’re going in the future,” O’Brien said.

The Innocence Project is an international non-profit legal clinic established in 1992. The annual conference has been held for more than a decade at various locations across the country. This year was Kansas City’s first time to serve as host. According to Neufeld, the project has secured the exonerations of more than 300 people. More than 60 branches of the project were represented at the conference, from as far away as the Netherlands.

In 2011, the work of Innocence Network member organizations led to the exoneration of 21 people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The Midwest Innocence Project achieved two exonerations this past year.

The Innocence Project, a founding member of the Network, is a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and created by Scheck and Neufeld in 1992. The project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

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"We here at UMKC are committed to justice and hands-on education for our students. Innocence work and clinics give the opportunity to do both of those things."

Dean Ellen Suni

UMKC Professor of Law Sean O’Brien, above, delivered the keynote address. Below, Juan Rivera, who spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, was one of more than 100 exonerees at the conference.