This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Forum magazine.
Every other semester, a small class of undergraduate students at Georgetown University ventures far beyond the typical college experience. They spend almost the entire semester attempting to exonerate prisoners who they believe have been wrongfully convicted.
And not long ago, the class reached an important milestone – for the first time, a man has walked free thanks to their efforts.
Students who take the “Making an Exoneree” class, taught by professors Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff, begin by choosing their potential exonerees. The first class, taught in spring 2018 as part of the Prison Reform Project line of courses at Georgetown, chose four cases to work on, while the 2019 class chose six.
Then they go to work. Undergrads pore through case records, then interview prosecutors, defense counsel and witnesses. Student also talk to experts in everything from forensics to witness manipulation; and finally, they create websites and documentaries to make their case.
While it’s an exhausting experience (most students keep up with their cases well after the semester ends), the potential payoff is enormous. Each time they enter the classroom, students see the ultimate goal standing in front of them. Tankleff himself was wrongfully convicted of murder as a teenager and spent 17 years in prison until his conviction was overturned and his sentence vacated in 2008. Howard, his childhood friend, was among those who worked for Tankleff’s release.
The uniqueness of Tankleff and Howard’s relationship is a reason why such a course exists and has been hard to replicate elsewhere, at least so far. “I wouldn’t say that anyone can do this and that it will work out the same way,” Howard says. “The reality is that Marty and I aren’t just anybody. We’re two people who have lived through the experience – Marty, of course, on the inside, and me on the outside. We understand how hard [exoneration] is and what it takes.”
Still, Tankleff is a tangible reminder that dedicated exoneration efforts can pay off. “That’s the goal of the class,” Tankleff notes. “We can make another ‘Marty’ – and with Valentino Dixon, we did that.”
Putting in the time
Valentino Dixon was among the four potential exonerees the first class had chosen, and he had been one man that Tankleff had wanted to help for years after coming across Dixon’s case while in law school. Dixon was serving a 40-years-to-life sentence for murder, despite another man having confessed to the crime within days of the killing.
Dixon’s case was ideal for a starter class. Dixon had gained national attention thanks to a sympathetic profile in Golf Digest after he created a series of stunning colored pencil drawings of golf courses while incarcerated, which sparked the Golf Digest editor’s interest. Moreover, there were multiple signs of a wrongful conviction: a videotaped confession by the alleged killer, no physical evidence linking Dixon to the killing, and credible examples of prosecutorial overreach and defense ineptitude – Dixon’s counsel didn’t call any witnesses during the trial.
In the early 2010s, “I made a commitment to Valentino. I told him, ‘I’m going to be able to help you, I’m not going to forget about you,’” Tankleff explains. “So when this class came together, he was one of my first choices because I knew he was innocent. The body of evidence that already existed was so overwhelming. Then we had our students dig into it even more deeply, and look what happened.”
Tankleff and Howard’s students, after immersing themselves in case records, spoke to any witness they could find, along with Dixon’s prosecutor. They conducted some new investigations with the help of a private investigator who worked extensively with the class. What further convinced the class of Dixon’s innocence was the latter’s eagerness to take any test, whether polygraph or DNA, to prove his innocence, and his desire to be exonerated. He did not want a pardon or to be granted clemency. “It was a powerful moment when he delivered that message,” Howard says.
Tankleff agrees. “Actions speak louder than words,” Tankleff adds. “Someone who says, ‘I’m innocent’ but does nothing about it, who makes no aggressive approaches to challenging their conviction, that’s telling.”
Students had to confront and overcome their fears: They visited maximum-security prisons and tracked down and questioned potentially hostile witnesses. “For every one of the [student] groups, any shadow of a doubt soon evaporated,” Tankleff says. “They built up this no-fear attitude.” Being complete outsiders to the justice system turned out to be a valuable tool for the work. “Students are disarming,” he adds. “When they’re talking to witnesses, it’s not a cop, it’s not a prosecutor that’s talking. It’s a student.”
Finally, in September 2018, Dixon’s conviction was vacated, and he was released from prison after 27 years. Dixon’s lawyer and Erie County (New York) District Attorney John Flynn told reporters that the Georgetown students’ documentary, which included newly discovered evidence from witnesses as well as potential prosecutorial misconduct that bolstered the case for Dixon’s innocence, had been crucial to his conviction being vacated.
Building a bigger system
Of the other potential exonerees whose cases have been taken up by Howard and Tankleff’s students, there have been some promising developments. Kenneth Bond-El, for example, has gained new pro bono legal representation while the cases of John Moss III and John Brookins are now being aided by the national Innocence Project.
A key question now is: How can the efforts of a handful of Georgetown undergraduates be improved and amplified by the US legal industry?
Howard and Tankleff point out that more financial resources are needed, for one thing. After the success of the Dixon case, Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative has been all but overwhelmed by petitioners. “We’re just flooded now, with hundreds of people who have contacted us,” Howard says. “It’s incredibly difficult to sort through and find the most promising cases. We try to do the best that we can, in terms of filtering and prioritizing. We can have 10 years’ worth of courses alone with the cases that have been presented to us so far.”
And while it’s all but impossible to create another team like Tankleff and Howard, with their substantive real-life experience in the wrongful conviction field, law firms can do many things to help their initiatives. The “Making an Exoneree” class needs more pro bono experts and, particularly, more firms that can handle the legal work that the students can’t do – remember, they’re not even in law school yet.
An ideal situation would be to have two types of pro bono work occurring in sync during an exoneration case. Georgetown students would work the investigative end, doing fresh interviews and compiling information with the help of experts who dedicate their time. Meanwhile, a law firm could use what’s been discovered to draft new petitions for clemency, requests for new trials and other legal efforts. Essentially, they would work the courthouse while students are out working the field.
This opportunity could be appealing for someone like a lawyer in a major firm who’s now “reached the pinnacle of their career and wants to add a little more meaning to it,” Howard suggests.
Working an exoneration case can be a truly bonding experience, with lawyers and students becoming a large, supportive family, and it offers experienced lawyers the opportunity to do some truly unique mentoring.
After all, “one exoneration is monumental,” Tankleff says, adding that the goal now is to achieve the monumental as often as possible.