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Doing it justice: BCU Law students in the US

Thomas Nicklin and Luca Prisciandaro, two students from Birmingham City School of Law, have been supporting Dr Sarah Cooper in exploring the idea of legislative reform in Arizona. 

Arizona Justice Project 1200x450 - Legal buildings in Arizona

Established in 1998, The Arizona Justice Project was the fifth organisation established in the United States to help prisoners overturn wrongful convictions, providing pro bono services to those with actual innocence or manifest injustice. This includes representing terminally ill prisoners seeking compassionate release. Compassionate release procedures typically allow prisoners to seek early release because of serious terminal, non-terminal, and/or age-related health issues. In addition to a federal procedure, nearly every U.S. state has at least one identifiable compassionate release procedure.

Dr Cooper was requested to use her expertise to explore the idea of legislative reform in Arizona. She was supported by Law students Thomas Nicklin and Luca Prisciandaro as part of the Birmingham City School of Law Future Legal Scholars Scheme.

Thomas shares his thoughts on the experience:

“Going in as an intern, I was somewhat sceptical about how involved I would be with the cases, despite repeated assurances from the American Legal Practice team that I wouldn't be making the coffee. This was made very apparent, when, on my very first day, I was given a large case file involving a relatively complex murder and told, "This person says they didn't do it - have a look through and let me know what you think."

“When a prisoner writes in his/her case, it is designated as level one, and the role of the interns at the AJP is to review these cases, conducting a full investigation to determine if there is any possible merit to the inmate's claims. Arizona is one of the worst offenders when it comes to mass-incarceration, so naturally, the AJP have many write-ins, and this volume of case files is simply too much for the attorneys to handle on their own. Cases that make it through level one are moved to level two, where the attorneys take over, and the interns take on the role of assisting the attorney with anything they need, such as research and document review.

“Whilst I was out there, there was also a national push to review all criminal cases where the conviction involved the use of hair microscopy evidence, and local cases had been flagged up and sent to the AJP to review. For this, I had to go to the County Clerk's office to review decades-old cases on microfiche, looking to see how the hair microscopy evidence had been used, and if so, whether it was a crucial piece of evidence that may have secured the conviction. There were many cases around the country where the convictions had actually been overturned because the cases relied heavily on hair microscopy, which is now recognised as a defunct science.

“After reviewing level one and the hair microscopy cases, I would write a summary document (a memo) where I would describe what I did and what I found, and I would send that to my supervisor. I worked on about 30 cases, and every one of them presented a unique challenge, with something different that I had to learn to complete my investigation. The experience itself is something of a full-mind workout, where you're having to do legal research, factual investigation, scientific research, whilst also learning about the criminal justice procedure in Arizona.

“I enjoyed the work I was doing so much. It really was like living inside of a Netflix true crime documentary series for two months!”

Subsequently, Thomas has been awarded a PhD studentship at BCU’s School of Law to examine compassionate release, and Luca is now studying for an LLM in California.

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