ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A man who has spent the last 30 years in prison convicted of murder may get a new chance at life thanks to a program at the University of New Mexico.
Those involved with UNM School of Law’s Innocence and Justice Project have been working to prove that Jacob Duran is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, citing new DNA evidence. Gordon Rahn, director of the project, said the program started at UNM in 2001 as a student organization. It was able to launch to the next level with a grant in 2010 that allowed the school to hire Rahn, a staff attorney and a paralegal.
There are innocence projects around the country, some of which are housed in universities and others that operate as nonprofit organizations. More advanced technology, especially more refined DNA testing, has made it possible to revisit old cases and free those who were wrongly convicted.
At UNM, students provide the labor that keeps the program going. The program is offered as a yearlong seminar course with space for 10 law students. Rahn said during that time, students work on cases the program has decided to accept. Students review all the documents related to the case, including witness statements, autopsy reports, ballistic reports, trial transcripts, tapes, videos and investigation notes. This helps them determine whether the case has any merit and should be taken back to court.
“There has to be clear and convincing evidence that there would be no reasonable juror who would have convicted this individual,” Rahn said.
The staff chooses the cases from those submitted by prisoners or their family members. The screening process includes a 20-page online questionnaire prisoners must fill out in order to have their case considered. Questions include details about the crime, whether the person has a way to prove his or her alibi or if they are aware of new evidence not presented at the first trial. Sara Escobedo, the project’s paralegal, said she receives 12 to 20 applications a month and the program can be working on up to 32 cases at a time.
Law student Margaret Kennedy is on track to graduate from the law school in 2018. Kennedy attended the University of San Francisco for her undergraduate degree in International Studies and she knew no matter where she attended law school, she wanted to be involved in an innocence project.
“I could not morally turn a blind eye to the fact that people are sitting in prison for a crime that they did not commit,” she said. “… I was shocked to hear the numerous stories of innocent people still being convicted.”
Sean Dolan said the program was a key factor in his decision to attend law school at UNM. He said he has learned how easy it is for someone to be wrongly convicted.
“I cannot think of a larger injustice than to be convicted of a crime you did not commit,” he said. “The convicted person has had their liberty taken away due to circumstance beyond their control.”
Dolan was assigned a case involving a double homicide. The course, he said, helped him learn his way around the court system. He called the class an “invaluable experience” in his law school education. He said most classes are theoretical and deal in hypotheticals, offering very little real-world experience.
“No other class provides students with this sort of hands-on knowledge,” he said. “Prior to this class, I had no idea how to get this information from the court. I also had no idea what to do with the documents once I had them.”
The future of the program faces an uncertain future with the end of its funding and no new funding source on the immediate horizon.
Rahn said the program grant ends May 31. UNM partnered with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety on the grant. The school uses the Public Safety Department’s lab for DNA testing. Rahn said the school is actively looking for a new grant to keep the program afloat.
“Right now there is no money for the program,” he said. “We are trying to find donors to keep it going while we look for money.”
One of the project’s highest profile cases is that of Duran, who was convicted of murder in the late 1980s.
It was five days before Christmas in 1986 when Anita Bush discovered the body of her mother, Teofilia Gradi, on the kitchen floor of the elderly woman’s North Valley home. Several gunshots to the head had ended the 64-year-old woman’s life. Robbery appeared to be the motive as jewelry was missing from her body and money she kept at the home.
Duran, who had done work for the elderly woman, emerged as the main suspect. A witness said Duran looked similar to the person he had seen jumping Gradi’s wall that night. Also, blood found under the victim’s fingernails matched Duran’s blood type. He was convicted in August 1987 of first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Rahn had that same blood retested for DNA and the results excluded Duran as a match, meaning it was not his blood under her fingernails. In light of the results, Rahn filed a petition in district court Feb. 8 to have the case dismissed or to grant Duran a new trial.
Kennedy said she would be heartbroken to see the class end because it offers students a one-of-a-kind learning environment and provides a necessary service to the wrongly convicted.
“In addition, this class means the end of options for people to appeal their conviction based on innocence,” she said. “This is the only entity in the state of New Mexico who accepts and solely works on claims of innocence pro bono.”