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Clinical Education at UT Law

Real Cases. Real Experience.

Texas Center for Actual Innocence

Overview

The Texas Center for Actual Innocence (TCAI) is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation that screens and investigates claims from inmates that they are actually innocent of the offense for which they were convicted and are serving a prison sentence. The Center is located at The University of Texas School of Law, and began operations in August of 2003.

TCAI operates the Actual Innocence Clinic in cooperation with the UT School of Law. Law students screen and investigate claims of actual innocence under the supervision of the TCAI officers who also serve as co-directors of the Clinic. Students receive law school credit for participating in the Clinic.

TCAI uses a very strict definition of “actual innocence.” TCAI defines it in two ways: first, the inmate did not engage in the conduct for which he was convicted, nor did he participate with others in the conduct. In other words, it was a case of mistaken identification of the inmate as the perpetrator of the offense. Examples of situations in which the inmate might be “innocent” of the offense, but which would not qualify for “actual innocence” treatment would be claims of self-defense, defense of third persons, duress, or legal insanity. In each of those situations, the inmate was present and engaged in conduct that might or might not have violated the criminal law, depending upon the defense presented.

The second situation in which there might be a claim of actual innocence is a case of false accusation of the inmate as the perpetrator of an offense. In this situation, there was no conduct engaged in by the inmate that violated the criminal laws. The offense may or may not have been committed by somebody else. The most typical situations in which such claims occur are cases involving an accusation of sexual assault on a child.

The law attaches a strong presumption of finality to a criminal conviction. The conviction will be treated as final unless the inmate can show in one of two special ways that he or she is actually innocent. First, the inmate is able to prove by new evidence that he is actually innocent. New evidence means evidence that was not introduced in trial, nor was it available to the defense to introduce at trial. An example would be if physical evidence was not subjected to DNA testing before conviction, but such testing after trial excludes the inmate as a perpetrator of the offense. This is called a bare claim of actual innocence. It does not require that any constitutional error have occurred during the inmate’s trial, but it must be based on evidence discovered after trial.

The second method occurs when there was a constitutional error during trial and that error resulted in information that might have proved the inmate’s innocence from being introduced at the trial. An example would be if the defense lawyer was ineffective in the investigation or trial of the case and as a result a valid defense of alibi was not presented at trial. This method does not depend upon new evidence of actual innocence, but instead upon evidence of a constitutional violation that probably resulted in a trial in which an innocent person may have been convicted.

In addition to operating the Actual Innocence Clinic, TCAI supports efforts to make the process of post-conviction exoneration of inmates on claims of actual innocence as effective and efficient as possible. In November of 2004, TCAI, in cooperation with the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center, conducted a conference, paid for by a grant from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which was attended by a majority of the judges of that Court, leading prosecutors and defense attorneys, lawyers and executives associated with agencies dealing with criminal justice, and leading law professors. The purpose of the conference was to exchange ideas in this nascent area of law and to encourage other Texas law schools to establish actual innocence clinics.

TCAI is also involved in continuing legal education to the bar and in research and writing on topics relevant to actual innocence. It also helps policy makers write, revise, develop, and implement laws and procedures to assist law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts arrest and convict the right person so that a violent criminal does not continue to prey on society while the wrong person languishes in prison.

TCAI is a nonprofit Texas corporation that has been awarded tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. Consequently, all contributions to TCAI are deductible as charitable contributions from federal (and most state) income taxes. TCAI will acknowledge all charitable contributions with a letter for tax purposes.

TCAI does not accept cases by telephone or email. The request must be in writing from the inmate; it cannot come from family or friends. Send requests to:

Texas Center for Actual Innocence
The University of Texas School of Law
727 E. Dean Keeton St.
Austin, TX 78705