“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 trial.
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.