“If you’re going to be convicted,” says John
Nuchereno (BA ’74), adjunct professor of law at UB and a
trial attorney at Nuchereno & Nagel law firm in Buffalo,
“it should be fair and by the law.” That may seem
obvious, but it’s not always how things work. Vital
information is sometimes withheld from the defendant. Key witnesses
aren’t called to the stand. False evidence is used in
So it’s not that unusual for prisoners who think they have
been wrongfully convicted to file a Freedom of Information Act
request, and discover a whole host of new data that might have
changed the outcome of their trial. Unfortunately, they tend to
figure this out long after the appeals process is complete.
That’s where the Innocence and Justice Project, a new
initiative of the law school’s Advocacy Institute, comes in.
Students participating in the pro bono project seek out cases
where there is strong evidence that an incarcerated individual
either didn’t commit the crime for which he or she was
convicted, or didn’t get due process, and then they pursue
post-conviction remedies. In the best-case scenario, they can
overturn the conviction of an innocent person.
Nuchereno—with four exoneration cases under his
belt—was selected last spring by SUNY Distinguished Service
Professor Charles Patrick Ewing to operate as the program’s
director. Now in their busy, student-run law office on the fourth
floor of O’Brian Hall, he and eight second- and third-year
students have been reviewing the petitions of 440 potential
applicants and voting on which cases to pursue.
“It’s one of the first programs of its kind in
Western New York,” says third-year law student Jesse Pyle.
“You really appreciate the difference you can make in
someone’s life … between having them spend a long time
in jail or experience freedom.”
Before Pyle and the other students were accepted into the
program, they had to complete a course taught by Nuchereno on state
and federal post-conviction remedies. “My course was offered
after registration closed,” Nuchereno recalls. “But
more than 30 students dropped a course to be in this one. That
really says something.” When the class was over, every
student applied to the project. Only eight, including Pyle, were
selected. Nuchereno hopes to grow the program in the future since
interest is clearly high.
Students in the program are working directly with applicants to
hear their side of the story. They are also meeting with their
families, trial and appellate attorneys, and witnesses. If
there’s a case to be made, they’ll prepare a motion and
eventually represent the applicant in court.
Pyle graduates this year, so he won’t see any cases reach
completion, as the process to overturn convictions is a long one.
But he remains hopeful. Although most clients won’t be proven
innocent (“most people in jail are guilty of
something,” Nuchereno says), the project will give them the
fair trial they deserve.
And that’s no small matter. After all, Nuchereno says, the goal is not to overturn as many convictions as possible, but “to uphold the integrity of our entire judicial process.”
We received the sad news at press time that John Nuchereno
passed away suddenly on Feb. 2. The Law School has named Gary J.
Muldoon (JD ’76) and Jon P. Getz (JD ’92), both of whom
have extensive experience in the criminal courts, to succeed
Nuchereno as co-leaders of the Innocence and Justice Project.