Texas Tech University Law School
by Andrew Marton
One of the most alluring academic avenues for law school students to pursue at the Texas Tech University School of Law is to enroll in one of its eight different clinics. Ranging in disciplines from capital punishment through family law, its Innocence Clinic was only fully incorporated into its on-campus curriculum as of last year.
To give the Innocence Clinic some historical perspective, back in the early 2000s, Tech’s School of Law had started an externship connected to the Innocence Project of Texas. That was functioning smoothly until around 2013 when one of the Innocence Project of Texas’ co-founders left the institution. As a result, Tech’s Innocence Clinic lost some momentum only to get back on track in August, 2016 – with the invaluable help of Pat Metze, a professor of law and director of all the criminal clinics at Tech, along with Allison Clayton, currently the Innocence Clinic’s primary supervising professor and “fellow.”
In fact, the connection between the Innocence Project of Texas, and its executive director, Mike Ware, and Tech’s Innocence Clinic, was solidified through Ware’s active engagement of Metze and Clayton, to help fully resuscitate the Tech Innocence Clinic.
In particular, Metze spearheaded Tech’s revitalizing of the Innocence Clinic in the fall of 2016, by fully establishing it on the law school campus – after he coordinated some of the Clinic’s earlier, off-campus work. At its more permanent, on campus, home, the Tech Clinic is now in its second year.
The Clinic often acts as a legal research adjunct to the work done by the state-wide Innocence Project of Texas, specifically working on cases involving the financially indigent.
This year, from a pool of twelve, third-year law Tech students, four were admitted into the Innocence Clinic, which is most attractive to those students with a burning interest in social justice and they are particularly drawn to appellate work.
What enriches the Tech Innocence Clinic experience is that it grants its third-year students a “student attorney license” to, under the direct supervision of the clinic’s professor, to argue in court, work with D.A.’s offices, and access court files pertaining to their classroom cases. In essence, it endows the four students in the Clinic the title of student attorneys recognized by the Texas State bar – for a period not exceeding their final year in law school.
“Our mission is to train kids to do this kind of exoneration work,” Metze declares. “Of course, a lot of people have social justice bents in their personality but they don’t know what to do with it. They might veer off in their career and lose that natural desire to help the wrongfully convicted. What we are trying to do for students in this program is that no matter where they go in their career, they will always have that foundation of wanting to fight injustice by identifying and helping exonerate people in prison who should not be there. That is our mission.”
The Innocence Clinic at Tech is not so much designed to create criminal defense lawyers at the trial level but to encourage appellate work that comes after the trial. It tends to attract a different type of student, one more interested in working the appellate courts and how the judges read the law.
“I find these Innocence Clinic students are not only ultra-intellectual, but they don’t tend to be quite as cynical about the system,” says Metze. “Rather, they tend to be very idealistic, while also being a bit disappointed that the system does not work perfectly. In fact, they have a strong desire to help the system work more perfectly. And they idealistically work hard to correct it.”
As for Allison Clayton, the fall of 2017 marks her second full year at the academic helm of Tech’s Innocence Clinic. “The whole mission of the Innocence Project and, by extension, these clinics totally inspires me,” says Clayton. “I remember when a while back I was first asked why I wanted to attend law school and my answer was because I loved the law. I thought it was part of the most perfect system of government where all was clean and neat. And then fast forward to me working in the court system and I saw a lot of people who were getting it wrong, where it just didn’t make sense to me how they found this person guilty – and I’m a pretty conservative person when it comes to the law. In essence, the further I got into the system the more it disturbed me as I started to conclude that I was pretty sure some of those convicted were innocent and I couldn’t do anything for them.”
Clayton and the Tech law school have structured the Innocence Clinic around two weekly hours of traditional class time, in addition to at least 14 hours-per-week (often much more) each student is expected to spend working various cases.
Clayton’s Clinic curriculum is built around real-life cases, not hypothetical theorizing. “Sure, I might spend some class time talking about a general writ of habeas corpus, or what the standards of innocence versus getting a conviction reversed are,” says Clayton. “But, in general, I’m going to be most often involving the students in very specific, case-based material: ‘How do we go about proving Mr. Smith’s actual innocence claim?’”
Clayton structures her Clinic by first giving each of her four students about five cases, most of them on-going. She will then tell her students where she is, personally, on the case and then invite a class discussion of the cases’ merits. And based on what has happened in the case, Clayton will ask what are the particular options available, looking to answer the ultimate question: “Do we have a claim?”
The cases worked on in the Clinic come from a myriad of sources but often they arise from the approximately 150 requests per week the Innocence Project of Texas receives and filters through before passing them along to various members of an on-campus Innocence Clinic. These requests roughly break down into 60 percent murder convictions, 35 percent sexual assaults, and five percent robbery and theft.
What Clayton engages her four Tech students in is to take the 20 or so cases they have been assigned, and then helps them sift through all the initial documents, before launching into some nitty gritty legal investigative work that includes being in touch with all the appropriate agencies, as they seek various examples of case evidence.
“It is important that the students learn how to put up a fight as these agencies will try to ignore them,” says Clayton. Indeed, Clayton feels that the biggest challenge facing her Innocence Clinic students is how to deal with another defense attorney, a witness, a judge, or especially a district attorney who has zero interest in helping the Innocence advocate.
“For these students, it just seems unfathomable to them that these others do not want to even look at the proof they’ve gathered,” says Clayton. “They will just turn a blind eye and simply not care what these Innocence advocates have to say. At that point, it’s important the students learn how to negotiate with people who don’t want to talk to them. How to sweet-talk people into sharing information they don’t want to share.”
Clayton’s Innocence Clinic eventually exposes her largely under-25-years old law students to often gruesome crime scene pictures and testimony that they’ve mostly never seen nor heard before. “There are lots of horrible facts usually involved in these cases and I try to consider that as I certainly don’t want to traumatize anyone,” says Clayton.
The skill sets imparted by Clayton in her Tech clinic include hands-on legal writing, and the possible accompanying experience of having that brief either denied or granted by a real court. Clayton is keen on teaching her Clinic’s class the art of talking to their clients in language they can easily understand – shorn of impenetrable legalese.
“My students need to gain that whole experience of interacting with our clients, people who have been in prison perhaps for decades,” says Clayton. “They learn to develop a real attorney-client relationship. They are no longer isolated students but someone talking with a convicted murderer who is their real-life client.”
And it’s important for the students to realize that some of their clients have been incarcerated for so long, “they have no idea about Google or what you mean if you say ‘LOL,’” says Clayton.
Essentially what drives Clayton to be involved in Innocence work is how much she wants to impart to her Clinic students how fallible human beings are at the center of the justice system. Clayton has recalled several examples where her Innocence Clinic students first approach a case as if the system has run as smoothly as a Swiss timepiece.
“And then a switch just flips,” says Clayton, “As the student suddenly sees the underbelly of it. Once my students, who are all such true believers at the beginning of the year are fully in it, they then see the flawed nature of the system.”
Further bolstering the clear value of the Innocence Clinic experience is that the Tech law school dean, Jack Nowlin, is one of its most genuinely enthused cheerleaders.
In an e-mail, Dean Nowlin wrote: “The Texas Tech Innocence Clinic is a fantastic program and the result of a wonderful partnership between our Law School and the Innocence Project of Texas. The Innocence Clinic serves the cause of justice and provides an invaluable educational experience for our students.”