By Darya Soufian
A new club called Innocence Ryerson has formed to educate students about wrongful convictions and to further advocate for innocent individuals who are facing time in prison.
In November 2020, third-year philosophy student Goli Omidshafiei decided she wanted to begin the process of starting an innocence project at Ryerson. She was inspired by the work of Innocence Canada, a non-profit organization with a mission to advocate for and exonerate individuals who have been convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
“The reason why I wanted to [start the club] is because I’ve actually been interested in Innocence Canada and The Innocence Project for many years, probably since Grade 9 or 10,” said Omidshafiei, who plans on going to law school in the future with the hope to do more work for innocent individuals.
According to Innocence Canada’s website, the organization has helped exonerate 23 innocent people since 1993. Exonerations are listed on its website with profiles of the wrongfully convicted.
In addition, Innocence Canada works to prevent future injustices through legal education and reform.
With the help of students in the articling, fellowship and many other programs offered by Innocence Canada, the organization has had a successful journey thus far. In 2020 alone, it had over 50 students in some capacity in student programs.
Currently, there are official Innocence Canada student programs at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School, Dalhousie University and Humber College. Innocence Ryerson is not officially endorsed or affiliated with Innocence Canada.
Although Innocence Canada accepts student volunteers, those spots are only offered to law students. Through starting a Ryerson group, Omidshafiei said she hopes to expand opportunities to contribute to Innocence Canada to undergraduate students like herself. Her goal is to educate surrounding communities about wrongful convictions.
“Student programs focus on creating the next generation of advocates”
At the beginning of the process of creating the group, Omidshafiei reached out to the director of education Stéphanie Nowak at Innocence Canada. Once she was given the green light from Nowak to start the Ryerson chapter as an affiliate group of the Ryerson Students’ Union, she got department chair of criminology Dan Horner to endorse the club.
Nowak said Innocence Canada focuses on “creating the next generation of advocates” through its official student programs.
“The students get to review the files, look at different avenues of investigation and get an idea of what a wrongful conviction looks like in practice,” said Nowak.
Innocence Ryerson will utilize social media to promote its initiative and what it’s advocating for.
At Ryerson, another group that started in 2020 called Innocence at Ryerson Law has the same mandate of advocating for individuals who have been wrongly convicted, but it is only open to law students. Innocence at Ryerson Law is approved under the Ryerson Law Student’s Society and isn’t affiliated with Innocence Ryerson.
A majority of the Innocence Ryerson members are undergraduate criminology students, but the club welcomes students from various programs and faculties as well.
The vice-president, Rosha Hadd, is an arts and contemporary studies student while their secretary, Ali Karatu, is a business student.
“We had all of our executive members in place when we started the group. Just by word of mouth, I was able to build a whole team of executives,” said Omidshafiei.
The group already has 15 general members and are consistently receiving more application forms to grow the club.
Its current goal is to continue growing its membership and utilize the resources Innocence Canada has provided like guest speakers, educational materials, legal staff and more.
Bhavan Sodhi, the legal director of Innocence Canada, oversees all aspects of casework that happen and is involved with many of the student programs.
Sodhi said students can support the wrongfully convicted in various ways—they don’t have to be involved with casework in order to make a difference.
“My message to students is your contribution doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of being a volunteer or student with Innocence Canada,” said Sodhi.
Sodhi said people can be involved with the legal system in many ways to do good work, even as private citizens because there is a lot of work to be done such as advocacy.
“Individuals are not necessarily aware of the amount of time and resources that wrongful conviction work requires and because we are a non-profit organization, both time and resources pose a challenge,” said Sodhi.
“That recognition that wrongful convictions are an innate aspect to our criminal justice system and ensuring that you’re cognizant and open-minded about them will go a long way in ensuring that future injustice doesn’t happen.”
“Individuals are not necessarily aware of the amount of time and resources that wrongful conviction work requires and because we are a non-profit organization, both time and resources pose a challenge”
Every October, Innocence Canada hosts an event called Wrongful Conviction Day to raise awareness and to also praise those who have dedicated their time to wrongful conviction work. Cities across the country sign proclamations to recognize the wrongly convicted and the consequences they and their families have to face.
“Innocence Canada has been extremely supportive of this affiliate group’s formation, they have offered Ryerson access to their faculty and lawyers for educational discussions virtually or on campus in the future,” said Omidshafiei. “They’ve also invited us to off-campus events.”
Now that the group is up and running, Innocence Ryerson plans to host virtual and eventually in-person events to educate students about wrongful convictions and raise money for Innocence Canada so the organization can continue to help the innocent and their families.
According to Omidshafiei, all money raised from any events will go directly to Innocence Canada.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that Innocence Ryerson is not endorsed by or officially affiliated with Innocence Canada. The Eyeopener regrets this error.