Elizabeth DeLosa, in white, managing attorney for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project's Pittsburgh office, stands along with, from left, law students Jennifer Vogel, seated, from Duquesne University; Sean Champagne, University of Pittsburgh; Kyle Watson, Pitt; Kelsey Ayers, Duquesne; Kristi Heidel, Duquesne; and Susannah Glick, Duquesne, inside a classroom in the Duquesne University Tribone Center for Clinical Legal Education in Uptown.
By Michael A. Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Western Pennsylvania lawyers, law students and community members interested in supporting the exoneration of wrongfully convicted people and the prevention of innocent people being convicted now will be able to do so locally.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, headquartered in Philadelphia, has opened a Pittsburgh office, making it the first among such programs nationally to have multiple locations in a state.
Just as the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, founded in 2009, is located at Temple University Beasley School of Law, its Pittsburgh office is located at Duquesne University School of Law.
As in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh office is operating a student clinic in which law students from Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh law schools will earn college credit by examining vetted cases, seeking a way to prove actual innocence. The project does not accept cases in which incarcerated people claim they were put behind bars due to technical violations.
The official launch of the Pittsburgh office will be celebrated from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at a reception in The Tower at PNC Plaza, Downtown. The lawyers, law students, business and community leaders who attend will learn about the project’s mission to prevent imprisonment of the innocent and to free the wrongfully convicted.
Speaking at the event will be Peter Neufeld, co-director with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York, which the attorneys co-founded in 1992. Also speaking will be Point Park University professor Bill Moushey, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative reporter. He founded the former Innocence Institute of Point Park University — the first innocence project in the state — and from 2001 to 2012 was its director.
Also attending will be Jim Fogle and Crystal Weimer, two of the 58 people who have been exonerated in Pennsylvania since 1989. Mr. Fogle, 64, of Indiana, Pa., who served 34 years in prison for murder and is the subject of a continuing series in the Post-Gazette, was exonerated in September 2015 through new DNA testing of evidence. Ms. Weimer, 39, of Connellsville, who spent nearly 11 years in prison on a murder conviction, was exonerated in June because bite-mark and other evidence used against her were discredited.
Richard C. Glazer, executive director of the nonprofit innocence project, said among the reasons for opening a Pittsburgh office is that it will provide efficiencies in investigating cases from the western part of the state.
“We have a number of cases in Western Pennsylvania, and to investigate and litigate them from Philadelphia is confining,” said Marissa B. Bluestine, the innocence project legal director.
Additionally, Mr. Glazer said, when new Duquesne University president Ken Gormley was dean of the law school, he had expressed interest in housing an office at the school. PNC hosted a meeting where Mr. Glazer and other project officials met with local attorneys “and there was lots of positive enthusiasm and support for making the move.”
David B. Fawcett, a Reed Smith attorney, said he knows firsthand the importance of the work of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which has secured seven exonerations. Mr. Fawcett, an innocence project board member, has been working pro bono for years on the case of Gregory Brown Jr., convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder and related charges in the Feb. 14, 1995, blaze on Bricelyn Street, East Hills, that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters.
In February 2014, his conviction and sentence to three life terms were vacated by a judge who found that during the trial an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the prosecution failed to turn over evidence that witnesses were offered money for their testimony. Mr. Brown is awaiting a new trial.
“There’s a real need for this organization, which is almost completely dependent on volunteers, including for funding. I’m hoping the legal community and the community in general, come forward to support the really important role the innocence project plays,” Mr. Fawcett said.
The new office, housed in the law school’s Tribone Center for Clinical Legal Education, Uptown, is headed by Liz DeLosa, who manages all litigation case development and oversees all investigations. She is a graduate of Pitt and Duquesne Law School.
Ms. DeLosa, most recently an assistant federal public defender in the Virgin Islands, weekly teaches a two-hour course about wrongful convictions to six law students — four from Duquesne and two from Pitt. Each student is given a case that is in the latter stages of a four-stage review process and devotes 10 hours outside the classroom examining it to determine if provable actual innocence is present.
“We’re busy and I’m excited to be here,” Ms. DeLosa said. Her office currently has a docket of 20 cases to be reviewed by students and pro bono attorneys.
Statewide, the project has 20 cases in active court litigation, and two more will be filed soon, Mr. Glazer said. Another 38 are in a queue for possible litigation, he said.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. Twitter: @michaelafuoco.
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