Students, faculty and members of the public met on Wednesday evening in the UT School of Law to celebrate the opening of the Budd Innocence Center, a program within the school dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. Speakers took to the courtroom podium to praise the importance of the center and others like it.
“If I’m trying to describe to anybody in the world the great nobility, importance and value of the work that comes out of this law school, especially of our clinics, the very best example I can give them is the work we do exonerating prisoners who are innocent of the crimes which they are convicted,” said Ward Farnsworth, dean of the School of Law.
Previously named the Actual Innocence Clinic, it was renamed and turned into a center after receiving a donation from the Budd family, Farnsworth said.
Rodney Ellis, UT alum and Harris County Commissioner, said the purpose of any innocence clinic is to give people who originally didn’t have the means to hire a good lawyer the opportunity to prove themselves innocent once convicted. Innocence projects and clinics like the Budd Innocence Center help people get out of jail when they can’t afford bail by proving them innocent of any charges, Ellis said.
The Sandra Bland case was a perfect example of this, as she was kept in the Waller County jail overnight because she could not make the $500 bail, Ellis said.
“But if she’d had $500, she would not have done that,” Ellis said. “Most people don’t have $500.”
Barry Scheck, a lawyer who was a member of O.J. Simpson’s defense team and now works with innocence clinics, said the Budd Innocence Center is part of a network of innocence centers that seek to provide the opportunity to defend oneself post-conviction to people all over the U.S., as well as internationally.
“This is an international civil rights movement,” Scheck said. “Our mission is to free wrongfully convicted people and reform the systems of their unjust imprisonment anywhere in the world.”
Law student Elizabeth Esser-Stuart said working in clinics while in law school is good, because it gives her job experience before being able to work in a practice.
“The clinic has been the best experience I’ve ever had,” Esser-Stuart said. “It really teaches you how to be a lawyer before you actually have the chance to practice and to do it under the supervision of the best lawyers that are out there.”