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WVU law school opens Innocence Project clinic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After 11 years in a Mississippi prison, Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance were exonerated earlier this year of charges that they brutally assaulted another woman and left bite marks all over her body.

Stubbs and Vance were convicted in 2001 on charges of aggravated assault and drug possession and sentenced to 44 years in prison, at least partly because a discredited forensic bite-mark analyst gave bogus testimony during their trial that pinned them to the attack, Stubbs' lawyer, Valena Beety, told the Gazette-Mail.

Beety is now the director of the West Virginia University Innocence Project, a new legal clinic affiliated with a national organization of criminal defense lawyers who help prisoners fight wrongful convictions.

"You get to feel great about what you do -- push through all the obstacles that are in your way," Beety said. "And when you get someone out of prison, it's amazing."

In the case of Stubbs and Vance, forensic odontologist Michael West testified during their trial in the early 2000s that bite marks found on the victim matched their dental records. West also told jurors that security camera footage depicted the two women carrying out the attack.

Prosecutors sent the video to the FBI for analysis. Federal investigators returned with a 20-page report that said they couldn't tell if the people were men or women and that they didn't appear to be engaged in any illegal activity.

The state, however, did not disclose that report to Stubbs and Vance. A Mississippi judge overturned their convictions earlier this year, and West has since admitted that his bite-mark analysis in the case was not sound.

Beety and recent University of Chicago Law School graduate Kristen McKeon, who is helping with cases as part of a yearlong fellowship, will handle the bulk of the casework for the WVU clinic. The clinic's four law students are charged with screening applicants for the program, Beety said.

"We're focusing as a project on freeing innocent people who are in prison, but also on policy problems, systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, and making eyewitness identification more reliable," she said.

Seventy-five percent of the 297 prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989 were convicted because they were mistakenly identified as suspects, according to figures from the national Innocence Project, which is based in New York.

WVU's clinic is still new, Beety said, so they haven't received many applications for post-conviction help, but she has been reaching out to prisons, public defender offices and other avenues for leads on potential cases.

When the applications do start rolling in, the clinic's student screeners will generally take two factors into account in determining whether to take a case: the credibility of the applicant and whether there is likely to be evidence that would conclusively point to an exoneration.

Part of the application asks the prisoner, "are you factually innocent of the crime," a seemingly strange question to ask someone applying to a program called the "Innocence Project." But Beety said that, sometimes, an applicant would claim to have played a circumstantial role in the crime.

For instance, in the case of a shooting in which several people were involved, an applicant convicted of murder might say, "I was there, but I wasn't the person who did the shooting."

"That's a really difficult case for us to prove," Beety said. "You've already admitted to being an accomplice."

Self-defense cases, and cases where people convicted of rape claim that the sex was consensual also fall under the category of cases the Innocence Project likely would pass up, Beety said.

The project also does not take on drug cases, she said.

Lawyers for the national Innocence Project are already involved in one West Virginia case.

Joseph Buffey was convicted in 2002 of reportedly raping the 83-year old mother of a Clarksburg police officer in her home. Lawyers representing Buffey said the combination of a coerced confession and an inadequate representation from lawyers at the time of his trial in 2002 led to his conviction.

DNA evidence has since proved that Buffey was not at the scene of the crime when the woman was raped, his lawyers say.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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