NCIP Alumni Testimonials
Working Alumni Give Credit to Their NCIP Experiences
The Northern California Innocence Project is both a non-profit law firm that works to obtain the freedom of innocent people and a legal clinic offered to students of Santa Clara Law. The Innocence Project offers law students the chance to do life-changing work while learning how to practice law.
Students attend class and work closely with attorneys researching, investigating and litigating claims of innocence. The Project helps them develop the critical practical skills and legal reasoning needed for the successful practice of law. Our graduates practice law in every imaginable practice area. Regardless of their area of practice, NCIP graduates take from NCIP developed skills in research, writing and communication that well serve them and their employers. They also acquire a deep understanding of the real lives affected by our legal system and the real issues—legal, ethical and practical—that must be grappled with in actual cases.
Sean Cooney graduated in 2007 and is an associate at McGrane Greenfield LLP, a small, civil litigation firm focusing on business, commercial real estate, and bankruptcy litigation. Cooney enrolled in the Innocence Project "to get involved with something that really mattered," and to develop legal skills. The experience was invaluable to Cooney, who says the Innocence Project taught him how to take a small amount of resources and use them with tremendous efficiency. He also said the course was also "crucial" in developing his writing skills. Cooney had struggled through Legal Research and Writing courses before taking the Innocence Project and afterwards, won ‘Best Brief' for the honors moot court competition. Cooney recommends the Innocence Project to all students because "it's a great place to build skills necessary in all areas of law, and it also builds case management skills that law school just doesn't teach you."
Michael Hemker is a Deputy District Attorney in Shasta County. He enrolled in the Innocence Project because he wanted as much exposure to criminal law as he could get in law school and because he likes the investigative side of criminal law and knew that NCIP would give him that exposure. He also wanted a well-rounded view of criminal law before becoming a prosecutor. Hemker loved the hands-on experience and recommends it to all students who, he says, "will learn more from a clinic than they will from a lecture course." Working at NCIP taught him to always be upfront about discovery and not to try to hide anything. Hemker stated that, "[e]ither you have a case or you don't, and if you don't, admit it and let the case go… I think it makes more sense for prosecutor oriented people to do NCIP than defense minded individuals—because if we do our job correctly then the Innocence Project wouldn't need to exist."
When the NCIP clinical program began in 2001, 10 students were enrolled in the first class. NCIP has recently begun to follow up with some of those earliest students to see what they are doing now. Imagine our delight when we found that in her firm profile, An Nguyen, who graduated from SCU magna cum laude in 2001, lists as one of her accomplishments that she was "part of the founding class of the Northern California Innocence Project."
An says that the investigative and fact development skills she learned in working at NCIP have served her well in her current work. "Whether you are representing a convicted felon or the president of a Fortune 500 company, you must always do an exhaustive and complete investigation to truly understand the facts." An explains that because that is what she did at NCIP, "I have had a tendency to dig deep into all my cases and never be satisfied until I really understand the issues and the facts."
As part of the founding class, An was here when we first began accepting requests for assistance. She remembers how overwhelming it was when we were deluged with letters and requests and how we worked to devise and implement systems for evaluating the requests. She also recalls working hard to obtain DNA testing for an inmate who insisted it would demonstrate his innocence, and the excitement because it was one of the first cases for testing under the then brand new post-conviction DNA testing statute. When the tests indicated that the inmate had in fact participated in the offense, she was at first disappointed, but then gratified to know that NCIP had participated in providing certainty to the conviction.
After graduating from Santa Clara Law, An worked as an associate doing general litigation before moving to Los Angeles 2 ½ years ago. She currently works as an associate at Jeffers Mangels Butler and Marmaro in Los Angeles doing employment and labor law. An has remained committed to public interest work as well, and is involved with the Asian American Bar Association and has worked as a volunteer judge with the Youth Moot Court in Alameda County.
As an NCIP student in 2005-2006, Philip Simpkins promoted collaborative justice by discussing actual innocence with his law enforcement in-laws. He let them know that NCIP's work was not focused on freeing people on technicalities and that NCIP's work actually helped to ensure that the right person had been convicted. After all, if the wrong person was incarcerated for a crime, then the actual perpetrator was free and likely to commit more crimes.
Phil, an associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, practices commercial civil litigation. He likes the mix of subject areas and range of issues, but, mostly, he says, it's the great people that he works with that he enjoys. And when not working, you can find Phil and his wife on the slopes, snowboarding.
Phil says that he was most impressed by the critical and objective evaluation of the cases taught and practiced by NCIP. The substantive classes, including the causes and possible remedies for wrongful conviction and the pre- and post-conviction legal process, was interesting and challenging.
Much of what he learned from his work at NCIP he has taken with him into the workplace – how just being pleasant can help break-down barriers between opposing counsel or others who stand in the way of your objectives, how to manage and keep track of time spent on a case, and how to evaluate a case with a critical eye. He notes that other lessons learned include that anyone can make mistakes, including law enforcement and - more relevant to his current practice - juries.
He emphasizes that it is not just the skills he learned that he took from NCIP, but the relationships with the people. He relished the camaraderie among the students as they helped one another make sense of their complex and interesting cases. And he says, "The supervising attorneys were awesome. They viewed students as more than temporary staff on the cases; they used every moment to teach the students about the criminal justice system, ethical issues, and how to think like a lawyer. NCIP is not just a class students take to get clinical credit, but an experience that students truly care about."
Innocence Project alumni Elizabeth Voorhees became interested in the program when she was pursuing the Public Interest/Social Justice certificate offered by Santa Clara Law. She signed up for the seminar class and was assigned to the legal team in the John Stoll case. She continued working on the case even after she graduated from law school in May of 2003. John had been convicted of 17 counts of child molestation and served 20 years before his exoneration and release on May 4, 2004, his 61st birthday. Voorhees describes her experience working on the case as life-changing." John came over to Santa Cruz with me and stood on the beach, looking at the waves for the first time in 20 years, and we cried together. He kept telling me that he had forgotten how much color is in the world; we just take it for granted." Voorhees is currently in private practice in Santa Cruz and Monterey county taking family law/civil harassment cases. In the fall of 2008, she hopes to open her own non-profit organization, Trinity Legal Center, which will provide low-cost mediation services to families, classes in non-violent relationship communication for teens and young adults, and legal services for battered women and their children.
Emily Wang graduated in 2003, worked for two firms after graduation and then successfully opened her own criminal defense firm two years ago, the Law Offices of Emily Wang. Wang says that her work at the Innocence Project is harder than what she does now. "Because it's post-conviction, you really have to look over every nook and cranny, every detail—you're really reviewing someone else's work trying to see what happened or what went wrong and it's easier to just start from scratch." She described NCIP as a great way to learn what not to do while at the same time helping people. Wang would absolutely recommend students take the class, saying, "If you can do an Innocence Project case, you can do any criminal case."