Student researchers search for the truth to set the wrongfully convicted free

Photo/Mike Lovett

Students conducting research at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism

Each wrongful conviction case the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism takes on requires years of unglamorous shoe-leather reporting and sophisticated sleuthing.

Founding director and investigative journalist Florence Graves’ team of researchers includes more than legal scholars and journalists. She also enlists the help of students whose majors run the gamut at Brandeis — from legal studies, journalism and English to psychology, neuroscience and biology. Graves says if the students are good, committed researchers, the expertise they have developed in their courses contributes to a more well-rounded approach to understanding the numerous questions and issues each case presents.

“The students we hire are smart — they’re Brandeis students after all,” Graves says. “And what I’ve found is that when students begin their work and truly see that it will contribute to a real-world solution or impact — in the case of wrongful convictions, we are talking about someone’s freedom — they take each assignment even more seriously and become even more passionate about finding the truth, or a part of it.” 

And while the main goal of the Schuster Institute’s Justice Brandeis Law Project is to make a broad impact through the stories of the wrongfully convicted, the students are changed, as well.

Lindsay Markel ’08 credits her decision to go to law school to the years-long effort she and the Schuster team undertook to help free Angel Echavarria, released from prison and exonerated last spring of a murder conviction. Markel, who recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, is now a public defender in New Orleans. 

Meanwhile, staffer Michael Abrams ’15, who plans to attend law school in the fall, believes his experience at the Schuster Institute has enhanced how he looks at his field of study. 

“My knowledge of the law before working at the Schuster Institute was very abstract,” says Abrams, who wants to be a public-interest lawyer. “Coming to the Schuster Institute changed that and gave me a firsthand look at how law is practiced.”

Schuster research scholar Laura Paige, who is writing her doctoral thesis in psychology at Brandeis, says her work on wrongful convictions has given her a new perspective on her career possibilities. 

“I’ve taken what we do in the laboratory and extended it to the real world,” says Paige, whose research focuses on false memories. “I’ve realized what I do in the laboratory is great and interesting, but now I see much more clearly the potentially dangerous impact false memories can have in the ‘real world,’ for example in criminal cases.” 

“We see how systems can fail people, often unintentionally, and the criminal justice system is no exception,” Graves says. 

Most social systems need to be reviewed and changed over time in response to new knowledge, Graves asserts, and she believes the criminal justice system is among the most resistant.

“One of our goals is to help these incredibly bright students see how systems that haven’t been willing to change or reassess can do serious harm to individuals, their families and ultimately society writ large,” says Graves. “And when they are in positions of power one day, I hope they will remember.”

Learn more about the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism's inner-workings by reading part one of this two-story series.

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