All Main Campus Library facilities are open and operating at full capacity to Georgetown faculty, students, and staff. The Library will be closed to external community members and guests through December 2021, with limited exceptions. Find the most current information available on the Library's COVID-19 FAQ.

or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

You are here

You are here

Library Training Supports Students Working to Free the Wrongfully Convicted

Valentino Dixon showing his artwork, in a screen cap from Double Time by Making an Exoneree students

One of Georgetown’s most remarkable classes gives students the opportunity to work to correct mistakes in the justice system and free people who are serving often decades-long sentences for crimes they didn’t commit.

In Making an Exoneree, small groups of undergraduate students reinvestigate cases of individuals who were likely wrongfully convicted of crimes and who are currently serving sentences in prison. “Many of these cases never had a proper investigation, and students usually discover facts that weren’t entered into trial within the first few weeks,” says Georgetown Professor of Government and Law Marc Howard. Howard teaches the class with childhood friend Martin Tankleff, who was himself wrongfully imprisoned for more than 17 years. Tankleff was exonerated in 2007 and now is an attorney in New York and an adjunct professor at Georgetown and at Touro Law Center.

“It’s a course that really helps students challenge themselves,” Tankleff said. Part of that is because working the cases requires students to apply knowledge from a wide array of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, conflict resolution, and public relations. But students will also face challenging situations and environments as they interview the people involved in their cases. “We’re asking them to go to a maximum security prison, sit across from someone who has been convicted, and ask them questions,” he added.

Throughout the semester, Howard and Tankleff invite experts to help the students identify and understand the errors in the original investigations and build the case for their subject’s innocence. These experts are selected to serve the needs of each specific case. If students discover, for example, that no one went to the crime scene during the initial investigation, Howard and Tankleff will invite a digital crime scene construction expert to help them understand what evidence might have been overlooked.

An element that is consistent every year, however, are the documentaries that student teams create about each case. These documentaries seek to publicize the wrongful convictions as a first step to helping the wrongfully convicted individuals secure legal counsel and ultimately have their cases reviewed. Howard and Tankleff bring filmmakers to the class, including producers from 48 Hours and Dateline NBC to teach students about storytelling.

Working in Gelardin

Students also work with the Library’s Gelardin New Media Center to learn the technical aspects of editing videos. “I discussed resources that were available through Gelardin and I taught students how to edit with Adobe Premiere Pro,” said Barrinton Baynes, Multimedia Project Manager and Multimedia Specialist in the Gelardin New Media Center. Baynes was also available for follow-up consultations as students were working on their documentaries, teaching skills like editing out background noise to help the finished films look and sound professional.

“I think it’s no exaggeration to say we wouldn’t have had the success we have without Gelardin,” Howard said. “Not just the training, but also the open-door access. Students would meet at Gelardin late at night and work on the computers there.”

“The training equipped me enough that I could do minute audio editings and make everything as smooth as possible,” said Grace Perret (C ‘20), who took the class in 2019. “My teammates [Sarah Jackmauh and Elizabeth Porterfield] were also on board and we split the work pretty evenly.”

Rectifying failures of the justice system can be a slow process, but the students’ work is having an effect. Several of the subjects of their documentaries have received legal representation—in some cases for the first time after decades of incarceration since their trials. “If our students weren’t so dedicated, some of these people wouldn’t have a chance at freedom,” Tankleff said.

One of the documentary subjects, Valentino Dixon, has been released from prison, in large part due to the evidence found by students. Dixon was arrested and convicted of murder in Buffalo in 1991 and sentenced to 38½ years to life in prison—even though another man confessed to the crime.

“It speaks to the power we have as students,” said Ellie Goonetillake (C ’18), who worked on the case with Julie Fragonas and Naoya Johnson. “You’d think that having no law degree or experience, we wouldn’t be able to help someone, and that’s not true. I don’t think the people we talked to were clued up to how prepared we’d be, even though we were students.”

Goonetillake added that the interviews the group conducted with Dixon’s family, his original attorneys, and the prosecutor were critical. “We asked [the lead prosecutor] quite interrogative questions, and he admitted there was a gunshot residue test that came back negative but was misconstrued in the trial,” she said. That gave them a valuable argument when they spoke to John Flynn, who became Erie County’s District Attorney in 2016, and was receptive to revisiting the case.

The case of Christina Boyer, which Perret and her team worked on, is moving more slowly. Boyer is serving a life sentence for the murder of her daughter, having accepted an Alford Plea under the advice of a court-appointed attorney to avoid the death penalty. The plea allowed her to maintain her innocence while pleading guilty, even though she didn’t fully understand the implications of that plea and despite significant evidence that her ex-boyfriend had actually committed the crime. Boyer was up for parole when the Georgetown team started their work, and her parole lawyer recommended against pushing for exoneration as the two are distinct and sometimes incompatible processes. The pandemic has also caused delays, but Boyer is up for parole again near the end of this year. If that is denied, the team working on her case will shift their approach.

A Lifelong Commitment

Regardless, Perret and her group are still working on Boyer’s case even though the class has ended—which is consistent among nearly everyone who takes the class. “We expect a lot of our students, and when they grasp that someone’s life is at stake, we see them grow throughout the semester,” Tankleff observed. “As the bond develops, they realize how important what they’re doing is.”

“It becomes a part of their life, rather than just a project,” Howard added. Many students have gone on to law school, including the documentaries as part of their application materials, while others are now working for organizations like the Innocence Project or in other jobs related to criminal justice.

Goonetillake, for example, studied law in London after graduating from Georgetown. While she’s now working for the company that sponsored her studies, she hopes to return to criminal law when her training contract is completed. “I think [the class] opened my mind to the reality of incarceration—it’s a tragedy that Valentino was convicted and served so much time,” she said.

Perret is now a certified domestic violence advocate who plans to attend law school in two years. She sees parallels between Boyer and the clients she works with now, many of whom lack the resources to receive fair treatment. “It’s easy to say that there are victims and there are perpetrators, but the reality is that there are people with resources and people without, and that is a much more clear path to what justice means,” she said.

“The work they’re doing has more societal impact than maybe any other class you could take anywhere in America,” Tankleff said. “There are not many classes where undergrads have the opportunity to investigate a case, find new evidence, work with lawyers, and be there when people walk out of prison.”