Innocence Project, Students Help Client Obtain Freedom
The Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN), working with Minnesota Law students, recently helped overturn the conviction of a man who steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout five years of incarceration.
Javon Davis had been sentenced to 28 years in prison after he was convicted in 2015 on attempted murder charges arising out of a shooting outside of Target Field. The conviction came despite a dearth of evidence tying Davis to the scene and highly inconsistent witness accounts.
Earlier this month, a Hennepin County judge vacated the conviction, concluding that Davis had received ineffective assistance of counsel from both his trial and appellate lawyers. Rather than retry Davis, county prosecutors this week withdrew all charges “in the interest of justice.”
It was a life-changing moment for the father of six who became an IPMN client in 2017. Media reports described Davis as “ecstatic” when he learned the news that he was now free to go.
Julie Jonas ‘95, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, could also aptly be described as ecstatic. “It’s one of the best days in a lawyer’s life when your client is freed,” she says.
The IPMN team was able to demonstrate that Davis’s trial counsel mishandled alibi evidence that would have prevented his conviction. The team’s success was all the sweeter because of the difficulties inherent in prevailing on such claims. “Lots of people make ineffective assistance of counsel claims, and very few win them,” Jonas explains.
Jonas says the Minnesota Law students who worked on the case over the last three years were extraordinarily helpful in obtaining Davis’s release. “We could not have done it without the law students. They were great.”
Also part of the IPMN team were staff attorney James Mayer ’01 and pro bono attorney Jon Hopeman ’76 of Minneapolis. Both men were crucial to the success of this case.
Fielding the Investigation
Rachael Melby, 3L, worked as an investigator before enrolling in law school. The summer before her first year at Minnesota Law, IPMN recruited her to investigate its cases. When she joined the Innocence Clinic as a student attorney the following year, she was expected to hit the ground running. “I was assigned Davis’s case and told ‘I need this done yesterday,’” she says.
Over the course of the next few months, Melby carefully reviewed the case files, including hundreds of pages of police records and trial transcripts. Using her investigatory skills and a whole lot of shoe leather, she hit the streets of Minneapolis and conducted a field investigation. “I followed up on countless old leads that had never been pursued and interviewed numerous witnesses from the incident.”
Melby also had the opportunity to draft a portion of the post-conviction reply brief that the IPMN filed last December.
In reflecting on her involvement in the case, Melby identifies two key moments as particularly fulfilling.
“The first was immediately after [Davis] was released from the jail, we were driving in downtown Minneapolis with members of his legal team,” she recalls. “As we drove, [he] pointed out buildings he had never seen before and commented how downtown had changed since the last time he had been free. The gravity of these otherwise innocuous comments struck me, because they were coming from a man who had been removed from society for a crime he was innocent of for the past five years.”
The second unforgettable moment was when Davis was reunited with his six children. “Hearing the shrieks of excitement and seeing the love shared between [Davis] and his kids was a moment I will never forget,” Melby says.
Data & Documents
While Melby took the leadership role in the field investigation, Maria S. de Sam Lazaro ’19 found herself knee-deep in phone records almost immediately after joining the Innocence Clinic as a 3L. Jonas’s sole charge to her was to review the records to find anything potentially helpful to the defense.
Ultimately, de Sam Lazaro and Jonas worked with a forensic expert who specialized in cell phone data. Together, they discovered that Davis’s trial lawyer had missed key records establishing that Davis was on the phone with a friend at the time the shooting he was charged with occurred, making it extremely unlikely that Davis was the shooter.
In a highly unusual twist, de Sam Lazaro testified about the phone-record analysis in a March 2019 court hearing on the case. Prosecutors agreed to allow her to summarize the process rather than having the defense incur cost of having the forensics expert do it. Jonas says de Sam Lazaro did a fantastic job, using charts and graphs.
However, de Sam Lazaro’s work was by no means limited to phone records. She also helped draft the brief that was submitted to the court in support of Davis’s petition for post-conviction relief. In addition, she assisted Melby with the physical investigation of the case. The two law students drove around Minneapolis together looking for and interviewing people who might have information about what had happened that night and in the aftermath of the shooting.
“Working on [this] case was the first time that I got to put my legal skills to use in a way that had a direct and tangible impact on an individual’s life,” de Sam Lazaro says. “Law school can be very abstract and theoretical, and it was incredibly eye-opening and gratifying to get a glimpse into how the things I was learning in class get put into practice in the ‘real world’ and to get to use the skills I was developing to actually help an innocent person get justice.”
She will never forget the phone call she got from Jonas telling her that their client had been freed. “It was such an exhilarating feeling that I had been able to be a part of making such an incredible impact on someone’s life. It made me feel so excited for the opportunities that I will have as a lawyer to make a difference for my clients and my community.”
-By Mark A. Cohen