Baker Donelson and law students team up to "Do Justice"
DNA testing law gives wrongly convicted inmates new hope for appeals, thanks to an Alabama law firm and students from the Cumberland School of Law.
In 2009, the Alabama Legislature enacted a new law that allowed the state's prison inmates to file motions for forensic DNA testing, under prescribed circumstances. However, many inmates only had until the summer of 2010 to file motions - and unfortunately, many did not even know about the deadline.
To inform and support Alabama inmates who were qualified to make new motions under the law, the Birmingham office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz teamed up with the Cumberland School of Law for a unique pro bono project.
Pro bono team reviews 1,400 life-sentence convictions
Cumberland graduates and law students reviewed online court records to identify inmates affected by the new law. Acting as Baker Donelson pro bono fellows, the graduates and students compiled a list of 1,400 inmates serving sentences of life without parole in Alabama. They then created a procedure for reviewing Alabama court records to determine whether the conviction was for a capital offense and to learn the status of the case. They were using Westlaw pro bono online research as part of the Do Justice program to locate and review reported cases in the inmates' appeals.
By reading the inmates' appellate cases, Baker Donelson was able to determine what issues were reviewed on appeal and during the Rule 32 process. Once Baker Donelson determined whether the inmate was sentenced for a capital offense, the team then needed to learn about the status of the inmate's case.
Reported cases on Westlaw Classic and WestlawNext save critical time
Because court records are often unavailable or incomplete, particularly in rural counties, having access to these opinions on Westlaw via our pro bono program was a vital part of the process. Reported cases on Westlaw Classic and WestlawNext provide the most complete information about the issues that have been litigated on appeal, the status of postconviction proceedings, and other pertinent details.
After completion of the record review process, the pro bono team contacted inmates or their attorneys to make sure they were aware of the requirements of the new law. In cases where the inmate was unrepresented, the team attempted to recruit a volunteer attorney to represent the inmate.
"If we did not have ready access to reported decisions, we would have had to collect additional data through more difficult and expensive means, primarily by manually reviewing files at courthouses or by getting information directly from the inmates," said Lisa Borden, pro bono shareholder at Baker Donelson.
"We prefer not to contact inmates directly until we have done as thorough a review as possible, since the inmates often don't provide the most accurate information," Borden said. "With access to Westlaw through the Do Justice program, we are able to provide assistance more easily and effectively and, ultimately, to help more people exercise their right of appeal."
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz represents clients across the United States and abroad from offices in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington, D.C. and the United Kingdom.
Lisa W. Borden
Pro Bono Shareholder
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C.
1600 Wells Fargo Tower
420 North 20th Street
Birmingham, Alabama 35203