Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exoneration 101

Investigative journalism, almost by definition, requires a significant commitment of time and resources – commodities that are in short supply at most news organizations.

That’s why it makes perfectly good sense to harness the talents of students to help with the research work that any good investigative project entails. Properly trained and mentored, a team of students can provide the research muscle for any ambitious project.

This lesson has been grasped well at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where a team of students and faculty won an Emmy award this year for a documentary about electronic waste. And a recent initiative by the school to partner with law students could play a significant role in uncovering new cases of wrongful convictions in Canada.

Earlier this month, the school announced a partnership with UBC’s law faculty to investigate miscarriages of justice in BC. Since 2007, the law faculty has run an Innocence Project that has been looking into more than 20 murder cases. The joint-venture is the first of its kind in Canada.

UBC’s Innocence Project is one of three across the country. The others are at Osgoode Hall and McGill, and all involve law faculties. Merging the talents of law and journalism students seems like a no-brainer, but no one has done it before in Canada. So it is encouraging to see such a partnership come to fruition.

Tamara Levy, a law professor and director of the UBC project, says on the university’s website that the journalism students “bring unique skills that will help us shed some light on our investigations and move them forward more quickly.” Mary Lynn Young, director of the journalism school, sees it as “a great opportunity for students to learn investigative journalism skills” in collaboration with the law faculty.

Students have played a pivotal role in overturning convictions in the U.S. for years. Most famously, the Medill journalism school in Chicago developed evidence that has freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row, since 1996. Former Illinois governor George Ryan credited the school with helping provide the impetus for his moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.

One of the most memorable and gratifying projects in my own career involved an investigation into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard. Through news stories, documentaries and eventually a book, we were able to document an extraordinary case of a man who spent 23 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Seeing how that work impacted both the justice system, and one man’s eventual freedom, was humbling.

What better training could there be for journalism students than to be involved in a similar pursuit? To get some idea of how life-changing those experiences can be, you just have to peruse the stories of Medill alumni and read their descriptions of watching an innocent man walk free – in part, because of their work.

There will be no shortage of cases in Canada to investigate. It’s estimated that as many as five per cent of convictions could be faulty. It is only the fortunate few who link up with a lawyer, family member or journalist who are persistent enough to spend the time and resources to investigate their case.

The UBC project says it hopes to put forward its first case for ministerial review by the end of the year. With the new potent partnership of law and journalism students, there is little doubt that we will soon be learning about new cases of wrongful convictions from British Columbia.

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