Law school graduate Jessica Farris worked with Innocence Matters to free John Smith, who was wrongly incarcerated for 19 years
On September 21, a 37-year-old California man wrongfully imprisoned for just under 19 years is expected to gain his freedom, thanks in part to the efforts of a recent graduate of the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University.
Jessica Farris, a graduate of the class of 2012, began working on John Smith’s case during the summer of 2010, after her first year in law school. Farris spent that summer volunteering with Innocence Matters, a public-interest law organization based in Southern California, where her family had recently relocated.
Innocence Matters had just accepted the case of John Smith, who was convicted of a 1993 murder based on perjured testimony from a police witness. Smith’s original defense lawyer neglected to pursue numerous leads that established his innocence.
Farris, who initially began volunteering with Innocence Matters to fulfill the law school’s 50-hour pro bono service requirement, played a significant role in the effort to establish Smith’s innocence, said Deirdre O’Connor, the executive director of Innocence Matters.
Devoting hundreds of pro bono hours to Smith’s case over the two subsequent years, Farris took part in interviews with key witnesses, drafted portions of a habeas petition and helped develop an overall strategy that undermined confidence in the conviction in the eyes of the District Attorney’s Office and a supervising Criminal Courts judge, O’Connor said.
“Jess is amazing,” O’Connor said. “She’s been there right from the beginning, and her contributions have been extraordinary.”
Susan Kinniry, a 2011 graduate of the law school, along with volunteers from other law schools, has also contributed to the effort to free Smith, O’Connor noted.
A supervising judge for the Los Angeles Criminal Courts is expected to authorize Smith’s release from prison on Sept. 21, with the full support of the District Attorney.
Farris, who now lives in San Pedro, Calif., and serves on the Innocence Matters board, personally raised more than $1,000 to help Smith get back on his feet and will be there when he walks out of court as a free man.
“It was a very powerful experience,” Farris said. “I realized how important it is to do good work. I think it’s going to make me a much more careful lawyer.”