Cal. Litig. 2020, Volume 33, Number 3

The Impact of Innocence: A Lawyer’s Perspective

By Melissa O’Connell

Melissa O’Connell received J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law in 2003. She was one of the early practitioners with FLY, a non-profit working with at-risk youth. She was a public defender and then joined a boutique criminal defense firm practicing in multiple jurisdictions throughout Northern California. In 2010, Melissa returned to SCU and serves as a Staff Attorney and Policy Liaison for the Northern California Innocence Project, where she litigates innocence cases, supervises law students, and lobbies and testifies in Sacramento for reforms inspired by Innocence work. Melissa is also a Lecturer in Law.

Imagine being a teenager; not just the awkward moments, but the moments we live to reminisce about. Now imagine being a teenager arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder you did not commit. That was the reality of Zavion, and Franky, Arturo, Obie, Armando, and countless others. We have all seen the articles celebrating an innocent person’s homecoming after decades of wrongful incarceration. These articles celebrate freedom but often fail to consider the reality of our client’s lives once they leave the cement walls. When an innocent person is freed, our society and our system think that everything is fine because justice was eventually served. But our clients are not fine. This article is an attorney’s narrative describing what I have seen our clients and their families experience and heard them say about the reality of the devastating and lasting impact of a wrongful conviction.

Lawyers who work in the criminal system, like us, do so to ensure justice is carried out for the accused and for the victims and survivors of crime. Of course justice is never served when an innocent person is convicted of a crime they did not commit. From the perspective and experience of a lawyer working to free the wrongfully convicted, it is my hope that our system and those practicing within it never become complacent in the search for justice.

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