By Amanda-Marie Quintino
Ahmed Shafey gets convicts out of jail. He’s a member of The Innocence Project at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
The project started in 1999 with the lofty goal of freeing the wrongfully convicted. “I’ve learned more in the last six months of doing this than I have in any of my courses,” says Shafey, a second-year law student.
The project, which was created in 1997, re-investigates closed cases. Faculty and students work to free innocent convicts, some of which have spent decades languishing in cells. “People who have been convicted of serious offences apply to The Innocence Project, and we, as the students, do everything from deciding whether or not to take their case, to doing the investigative work ourselves, speaking with people who, in the past, have dealt with the case?–lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses, etc.
And in the end, we help them to file an appeal,” Shafey says. The Student Law Society of Ryerson University also has a group of students interested in law. While Christopher Tarach, president of the SLSRU, admires the initiative behind The Innocence Project, he has suggested student law-based organizations implement systemic changes.
He says that The Innocence Project doesn’t address what causes wrongful convictions. “I commend (The Innocence Project) for their efforts,” he writes via email. “I think it is important for more law students to get involved in projects like The Innocence Project with aims of bringing about justice. The Innocence Project facilitates student learning while pursuing a noble goal…I think the Innocence Project is fantastic, however it seems to me like a Band-Aid approach failing to address the root cause of the problem.”
These root causes, Tarach says, are inequalities, such as racism, sexism and “classism.” “(Wrongful convictions are) rarely intentional ill will,” says Shafey. “There are a lot of factors that contribute, and things sometimes go wrong. These are usually high-profile crimes where the community really wants justice to be served, and so, in haste, mistakes are made.”
The project’s biggest success is the case of Romeo Phillion, a man who spent more than 31 years in jail after being convicted of the death of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy, in 1967. In 1972 he was sentenced to life in jail. Phillion had been eligible for parole, but his release was unlikely because he refused to admit guilt.
The Innocence Project’s research revealed that Phillion could not have committed the crime. In May 2003, the project applied to the minister of justice to secure Phillion’s exoneration. Phillion was let out on bail while the courts review his case. But cases such as this don’t get solved overnight. Phillion’s case required more than four years of research.
“Each year, students try to chip away at them as much as possible, and put a dent into the actual work that needs to be done in order to come to a resolution,” Shafey says.
Before The Innocence Project can take on a case, several criteria must be met. The individual needs to be convicted of a serious crime, such as murder or assault, and an appeal must have previously been rejected by the Supreme Court. “(The project) doesn’t just take anybody,” says Christopher Sherrin, acting coordinator of the project.
The program tries to give each applicant the benefit of the doubt, he says, but they accept cases skeptically. “We take the approach that the criminal justice system may not always have gotten it right,” he says. Tarach, a fourth-year social work student who plans to attend law school after earning his degree, thinks there needs to be greater awareness of the issues behind wrongful convictions.
Since the SLSRU does not have the capacity to carry out the type of work The Innocence Project does, Tarach is taking on his own project in an attempt to fix the judicial system. “I am conducting a research experiment on juror decision-making, which seeks to uncover a method of mitigating prejudicial attitudes held by jurors,” he says. “We need a progressive system filled with conscious lawyers, judges and administrators of the law which are cognizant of structural inequalities and personal bias which impact the administration of justice.”
Though Shafey and his fellow members understand the underlying issues affecting wrongful convictions, they say they’re just trying to free one innocent person at a time. “The issue (of wrongful convictions) is probably something that you don’t think of often,” says Shafey. “I don’t think everybody realizes this problem exists in the magnitude that it does.”
The Innocence Project is just beginning to make an impact on the criminal justice system. And Shafey, a future lawyer, is a part of this piece of history in the making.