Barrister Marie-Louise Donovan, 24, from Moyvane in Co Kerry, jetted out to the US at the weekend to begin a three-month voluntary placement with the Innocence Project which has freed over 340 wrongfully convicted prisoners, some of whom were facing the death penalty.
She is one of just three Irish lawyers chosen by the Bar Council of Ireland to work this year on the project founded by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who were both on OJ Simpson’s defence team in his famous murder trial in 1995.
Each US state now has its own Innocence Project, which, since its foundation in 1992, has proven the innocence of and secured the freedom of over 340 wrongfully convicted inmates, at least 20 of whom served time on death row. The inmates served an average of 14 years before being cleared.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project helped highlight Steven Avery’s case which was the focus of the global hit Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Avery, who has been in jail for 18 years, remains behind bars despite serious questions over his conviction.
Ms Donovan will be based in Cincinnati until August, working with the Ohio Innocence Project which has, since its foundation in 2003, exonerated 23 inmates in a state where the current method of capital punishment is lethal injection.
“I applied to work on the Innocence Project when I was 21, shortly after qualifying as a barrister, but I was told I was too young,” Ms Donovan said.
“Looking back now, they were probably right. But I’m really looking forward to it now. It is such a worthwhile cause and I’m looking forward to helping. I think this is a very worthwhile cause and we are always striving to improve our own criminal justice system here so I am very much looking forward to moving over to Ohio and working with the Innocence Project there over the next few months.
“It should be a very educational and rewarding experience. It will be a privilege.”
Ms Donovan, whose parents are teachers in Listowel, started school aged four, sat her leaving cert aged 16, graduated from UCC with a law degree aged 19, and was called to the bar shortly after her 21st birthday, making history by becoming the youngest person to qualify as a barrister in Ireland.
After three years working in Dublin, she is now working on the South Western Circuit covering Kerry, Limerick and Clare.
She will spend the summer recess working voluntarily in Ohio with other lawyers from around the world to help exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates who are serving life sentences or who are on death row.
The Innocence Project teams take on certain cases post conviction and specialise in using advances in DNA testing, uncovering evidence of police misconduct, and in driving reforms of the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
They also review cold cases and engage in fieldwork interviews with key witnesses in the hope that they can prove a person’s innocence before they are executed.
Ms Donovan said witnesses often come forward with new evidence or testimony years after a person has been convicted.
She said some of the cases she will be working on will involve inmates who are facing execution soon.
“I hope to provide a fresh pair of eyes. Coming from another jurisdiction, we might see things that may have been overlooked,” she said.
An Irish Innocence Project was founded in Dublin in 2009 by David Langwallner, the Dean of Law at Griffith College