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Hawai‘i Innocence Project Wins $567,206 Federal Grant

November 24, 2018, 10:30 AM HST
* Updated November 23, 2:02 PM
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The Hawai‘i Innocence Project (HIP) was awarded a federal grant in the amount of $567,206. Competition for such grants from the U.S. Department of Justice is fierce.

Students in the HIP Clinic class of 2017-18, with volunteer attorneys. PC: UH Mānoa

HIP is the William S. Richardson School of Law’s student-staffed, carefully-supervised law clinic that uses DNA and other sophisticated methods to identify, and seek exoneration of,  factually innocent inmates in the Hawai‘i justice system.

HIP students investigate new evidence, prepare post-conviction motions, conduct hearings, argue motions, and file appeals. In addition to its students, the Law School provides office space, equipment, administrative support, and the services of faculty specialist Ken Lawson, who is HIP co-director.

Professor Lawson is responsible for daily operations, fundraising, and recruitment and coordination of skilled volunteers, which currently include 12 lawyers, two private investigators, two office helpers, and a DNA expert from the John A. Burns School of Medicine, Dr. David Haymer.

Honolulu attorney L. Richard ‘Rick’ Fried, who is one of HIP’s volunteer supervising attorneys, said the grant will dramatically help expand this important work.

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“Unfortunately, we know there are cases where people have been wrongfully incarcerated and who will benefit from this remarkable grant,” said Fried.

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HIP Associate Director Jennifer Brown ‘17 played a major role in obtaining the Department of Justice grant. Law School Dean Avi Soifer explained, “Jennifer managed all kinds of details beautifully, and receiving the grant is a tribute to Ken Lawson’s great work.”

Soifer added, “The grant also attests to all the effort contributed by volunteer attorneys who have dedicated their time to the project over the years, and to retired Law School Professor Randy Roth, who also stepped in and helped in major ways, and to retired Law School Professor Virginia Hench, who launched HIP over a decade ago.”

Lawson believes HIP’s grant application drew particular attention because student enrollment over the past several years is up threefold, the number of volunteer attorneys is up fourfold, and a new fundraising campaign is on track to bring in more than $100,000 in unrestricted funds this year.

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Also during 2018, adjunct law professor Wes Reber Porter helped design and recruit members of a Case Integrity Unit, consisting exclusively of former prosecutors who help to vet HIP cases.

After observing a student team’s presentation to the Case Integrity Unit earlier this year, one of HIP’s volunteer supervising attorneys, Leinaala Ley, described it as a particularly enjoyable experience during her first semester with HIP.

“The caliber of experience in the room was thrilling, and the collaborative discussion produced additional leads for the students,” said Ley. “I was struck by the intimate nature of this discussion which was unlike anything I had experienced when I was a student at UC-Berkeley, despite having attended numerous panel discussions.”

Lawson said that many of the students who take the HIP clinic end up practicing in the area of criminal law, either as prosecutors or defense lawyers. “We hope they all leave with a burning desire to seek justice,” said Lawson.

The grant specifically covers the costs of DNA testing, which can be very expensive, said Lawson. “It’s anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to conduct DNA testing for each case.”

Locally raised donations will continue to be necessary for needs not covered by the grant, such as student travel to national training conferences and to meet with clients incarcerated on the Continent..

HIP is currently working on 10 cases that involve DNA evidence and investigating over a dozen more applications. The project also receives over 100 requests for help each year from incarcerated inmates in Hawai‘i’s penal system, and carefully evaluates each one.

“It goes through a long process,” said Lawson. “Student teams investigate each application, and then the ones that rise to the top are vetted by the whole class and volunteer supervising attorneys, and then the Case Integrity Unit grills the students with respect to different aspects of the case. If it makes it through that, we take the case.”

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