Updated Jun 8, 2022 - News

Drake University clinic aims to help wrongfully convicted inmates

Left to right: Elaina Steenson, an attorney; Lauren Wheeler, an investigator; and Erica Nichols Cook, the clinic's director. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

A legal division at Drake University is taking steps to help some of the most underrepresented clients in the state — wrongfully convicted people.

Driving the news: Drake's Wrongful Convictions Clinic is in the process of joining the Innocence Network — a prominent non-profit organization that helps exonerate people using DNA evidence.

  • They'll be able to get more resources to investigate cases and file additional appeals.

Why it matters: Iowa has only had 16 exonerations since 1989 — a number Erica Nichols Cook, director of the clinic, believes should be higher, especially with the availability of DNA evidence technology.

  • She teaches Drake law students how to do post-conviction work as they assist with real cases from around the state.

By the numbers: In 2021, the Midwest Innocence Project was examining 60 potential wrongful conviction cases in Iowa.

  • Yes, but: Iowa is one of 13 states that has never overturned a case using DNA evidence, despite the technology improving drastically in more recent years.

What they're saying: “Our American criminal system keeps prisoners out of sight, out of mind and that’s by design,” said Nathan Sandbothe, who is currently preparing to take the bar exam.

The bottom line: Most inmates are assigned court-appointed attorneys that may not have knowledge of post-conviction cases, leading to ineffective counsel. Nichol Cook's hope is that not only will the clinic help exonerate people, but the students will go on to know how to handle post-conviction cases.

  • "Hopefully, we're changing these law students' perspectives," Nichols Cook said. "So when they go on to become prosecutors or judges someday ... they remember that a criminal justice system is just made up of people. And so mistakes can happen."

If you know someone in Iowa who you believe is wrongfully convicted, you can apply for help from the clinic here.

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