Academics and Research

DU Law students team with Colorado Justice Review Project to free an innocent man

When Robert Dewey walked free May 1, after serving 16 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, it was a victory for justice.

It also was a victory for the Colorado Justice Review Project, a federally funded collaboration between the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Denver District Attorney’s Office. The program — one of only two of its kind nationally to be operated by prosecution offices instead of defense offices — is charged with reviewing thousands of Colorado convictions in search of cases that could benefit from a new look with the support of modern DNA testing capabilities.

A select group of students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law were instrumental in helping process those cases, including the Dewey case.

Since the project’s inception in 2009, three to five law students a semester have participated in the effort through Denver Law’s Legal Externship Program. Students help hunt for cases that could be corrected with the help of testing unavailable at the time of conviction, explains Michael Dougherty, Colorado deputy attorney general in the Criminal Justice Section.

The participation of DU law students — who earn academic credit for their service — was written into the $1.2 million grant, Dougherty says.

“It’s a tribute to the Legal Externship Program at DU,” he says. “Starting in 2010, DU has been a tremendous partner in our efforts. The students bring energy, commitment and outstanding judgment to this project. The students without exception have been mature and hard-working. We’ve even had students come back when they weren’t getting credit.”

With some 5,000 cases to review, there was a mountain of work for all involved, Dougherty says. Not every case was eligible. If a case didn’t involve DNA evidence, it wouldn’t be reviewed. For example, if a suspect in a sexual assault case conceded there was sexual contact but claimed it was consensual, then the presence of his DNA alone wouldn’t merit review.

From there, students read every record of court proceedings, analyzed appellate files, looked for the location of retained evidence, went to individual district attorney offices across the state to review files, and even helped re-interview witnesses.

Dougherty, who also is an adjunct professor at the Sturm College, says students weren’t relegated to busywork. They made real judgment calls that affected real cases, and they presented their findings and recommendations to state authorities with the power to order full DNA evaluations.

“We treated the externs like attorneys,” he says.

Law student Dorothy Whitehead Weust, who graduates this month, was one of the Denver law students to lend her time to the project.

“I came to law school with the hope of doing postconviction exoneration,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh this is perfect; what a great fit.’”

Over two summers, Weust spent 40 hours a week working at the project, the second time without even earning law school credit. She added several more hours during the school year.It was during that second summer volunteering that she traveled to Grand Junction with an investigator to re-interview witnesses in Dewey’s case.

Dewey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for the 1994 murder and rape of a 19-year-old Western Slope woman. He had been in prison until his release was ordered May 1 thanks to the Colorado Justice Review Project’s discoveries.

While working on the case, Weust said those involved noticed the evidence wasn’t adding up.

“I think we had a gut feeling that something just wasn’t quite right,” she says. “Nothing suggested that the prosecution had done anything wrong, or that the police had done anything wrong. The evidence just wasn’t quite there.”

In the end, that gut feeling was right. Modern testing not only proved Dewey was not involved, but it also pointed the finger at another man already serving a life term for a murder and rape.

Ann Vessels, director of Denver Law’s Legal Externship Program, says connecting students to meaningful legal work while they are still in school dovetails with the school’s promise to deliver students at graduation who are ready to practice law. Real-world experience under the guidance of experienced advisers — both faculty and in the field — helps ensure law students see how classroom lessons apply in real cases and how legal judgments affect real people.

More than 70 percent of Denver Law students take advantage of the externship opportunities, she says.

“There are many really outstanding supervisory attorneys who work with our students, and Michael Dougherty is one of the best,” she says. “He integrates the students in all of the legal work in the office. Just as importantly, he exhibits the highest degree of professionalism, a key aspect of the practice of law.”

For Weust, being involved in the project — Dewey’s case in particular — was bittersweet.

“Part of you is thinking, ‘Oh, we got it right! We’re freeing a man!’” she says. “But on the other hand, it’s a reality that justice was denied for a long time.”




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