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New legal team, director energises Griffith Law School’s Innocence Project

Sam Cleveland | January 9, 2020

The Innocence Project—a global legal network striving to overturn miscarriages of justice—is back in the spotlight as the subject of a new Netflix series, The Innocence Files.

The critically acclaimed documentary chronicles the pro bono work of lawyers examining cold cases to free the wrongfully convicted from prison.

The Gold Coast arm of the Innocence Project is also in the news as it nears the start of its third decade, with a new generation of lawyers now working under incoming director Dr Robyn Blewer.

Founded in 2001, the local unit is administered from Griffith University’s Law School, a unique arrangement that allows law students to work on real cases alongside professional lawyers.

“Our students prepare briefs, study trial transcripts and assess the evidence and legal arguments, then meet each week with our instructing lawyers,” says Dr Blewer.

“Examining a potential wrongful conviction is not about looking at what we would do differently if the case were retried; instead we look for existing elements that warrant closer testing or investigation.”

Renewed Focus

Dr Blewer has stepped into founding director Lynne Weathered’s “huge shoes” just as Innocence Projects globally turn attention to new technologies and systemic research into wrongful conviction.

It’s good timing—Dr Blewer’s Masters in Criminology and PhD allow her to contribute through the dual lens of lawyer and researcher.

“There’s fascinating work being done on what these cases can teach about how wrongful conviction occurs and how we can prevent it,” she says.

That means digitising global records to more easily share case data and expanding from DNA-based exonerations—where the Innocence Project built its reputation—into other types of wrongful conviction.

“Other causes of a wrongful conviction could be just getting a bad lawyer, or a superficial police investigation,” says Dr Blewer.

“There’s also great advances being made in hair and blood and fingerprint analysis that now brings historical convictions into question—even new approaches to arson science.

“Which is all great for our students too – the chance to be exposed to a much broader range of legal issues.”

Innocence Project instructing lawyers Jonathan Nyst and Alex Somers of Nyst Legal

Griffith University Innocence Project director Dr Robyn Blewer
Innocence Project instructing lawyers Danielle Hanson and Erin Mitchell of Potts Lawyers

The new team

Since its inception, co-founding lawyer Jason Murakami and director Lynne Weathered shared the Innocence Project caseload.

Now, six high-profile Gold Coast lawyers work on cases with the students.

The new roster comprises: Ron Behlau from Behlau Murakami, Grant Potts Lawyers’ Erin Mitchell and Danielle Hanson, and Jonathan Nyst and Alex Somers of Nyst Lawyers.

Murakami remains as the project’s foundation instructing lawyer.

The new blood, says Dr Blewer, has brought a surge of energy; each of the incoming professionals is a Griffith University law graduate, and was also an Innocence Project student during their degrees.

“Even working with the handbrake of COVID-19 restrictions, there’s real enthusiasm among the new lawyers, particularly given their shared history with the Innocence Project as students,” she says.

Griffith Law School’s support for the project, says Dr Blewer, has been unwavering since its foundation.

“Almost 20 years is a long time to be committed to a project like this, and that support I think reflects the school’s fundamental dedication to social justice.”

Fighting for a better system

Alongside the shoeleather legal work of examining wrongful convictions, the Innocence Project also advocates for law reform specific to miscarriages of justice.

The Gold Coast unit made significant impact in 2010 when the Queensland Government adopted DNA post-conviction testing guidelines developed by co-founders Weathered and Murakami.

“Broadly, we advocate for a legal system that’s far more willing to look at errors that have been made and allow for review,” says Dr Blewer.

And as only the second director after Weathered’s term at the helm, Dr Blewer says she’s working to balance her former mentor’s legacy with the need for the Innocence Project to break new ground.

“It’s incredibly intense work,” she says. “I don’t know how Lynne kept it up; I’m now realising just how deep her passion for the wrongly convicted must be.”