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News Media Cite Graduate Who Helped Exonerate, Free Man Imprisoned 19 Years

News Media Cite Graduate Who Helped Exonerate, Free Man Imprisoned 19 Years

September 25, 2012

On Sept. 24, a 37-year-old California man wrongfully imprisoned for just under 19 years gained his freedom, thanks in part to the efforts of a recent graduate of the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University.

The Los Angeles Times, in a blog post, cited the role of Jessica Farris, Class of 2012, in gaining the cooperation of the lone eyewitness in John Smith's murder trial, who recanted his testimony. 

Farris was also quoted in NBC News coverage of the former gang member's highly publicized exoneration after being wrongfully convicted.

"We have a bit of a broken system and the fact that we can come in and make some systemic changes like this and help prevent it from happening to somebody else, it means the world," Farris said.

Farris initially spent the summer after her first year in law school 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 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 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 authorized Smith’s release from prison on Sept. 24, with the full support of the District Attorney.

Farris, who now lives in San Pedro, Calif., serves on the Innocence Matters board and personally raised more than $1,000 to help Smith get back on his feet, joined O'Connor and Smith's family when he walked out of jail hours after the hearing as a free man.

“It was a very powerful experience,” Farris said, amazed that her very first experience with a client enabled her to help right a devastating wrong. “I realized how important it is to do good work. I think it’s going to make me a much more careful lawyer.”