Giving Back With Your Time & Talents
For double Bearcat Tom Cuni (BA 1969, JD 1975), the practice of law is about more than bringing home a paycheck.
“People who come to law have this imperative to help people and make a living,” says Cincinnati Law alum Tom Cuni.
“There’s a good deal of satisfaction in doing that.” Cuni has had a long, successful career, primarily spent representing small businesses. As a partner at Cuni, Ferguson & LeVay Co., LPA, he represented clients in 600+ civil cases with approximately 100 going to trial to either the bench or a jury. These days he no longer represents clients in his legal practice, but he does volunteer his time for work in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court along with helping local non-profits and mentoring law students.
Getting Started on the Volunteer Train
Cuni started volunteering at Cincinnati Law a few years ago when, speaking at a Coffee Corner hosted by the Center for Professional Development, he learned the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic (ECDC) needed supervising attorneys. “I thought it’d be a good fit,” he commented.
Cuni’s decades of small firm experience and background in representing small businesses made him a great fit for ECDC. He spent several semesters supervising and mentoring clinic students, even working over the summer with them at the Hamilton County Business Center and Mortar, a local entrepreneurship lab.
“I really have a good time,” he said.
In addition to supervising, he was worked with the ECDC to bring legal seminars to the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati; he also plans to assist with organizing a seminar for Mortar clients later this year.
“The Clinic has a remarkable learning curve,” he said. “You can see a significant difference in the students from the start to the end of the semester. That’s one of reasons I love volunteering to work with law students, especially at the start of their careers.
“Besides, I like being busy,” Cuni, who jokingly refers to himself as ‘semi-retired,’ said.
He shared that he likes to be involved. In fact, for most of his professional life, he has been involved in some form of volunteer work, starting with the local Bar Association in the 90s. This led to position as a trustee on the board and, eventually, to the position as Cincinnati Bar Association Board president. “This took a good deal of my time, but I realized my business did very well when I was very busy.” He acknowledged he learned to manage his time efficiently and make decisions quickly. He didn’t have time to waste.
But as Cuni left the role of board president, he was approached by three representatives involved with ProKids, a non-profit organization which provides help for abused, neglected, or dependent children who are involved in proceedings in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. They invited him to bring his skills and talents to that board and organization. Now, he spends two to three days per week volunteering as an attorney for ProKids’ Guardians ad Litem who look after the best interest of the children in the court system.
“I started as a litigator and I created my job all over. It’s just for free now,” he says.
“I rarely see the kids I help. I deal with the guardian ad litem. A good amount of the time, though, the kids really benefit. I like to believe that their lives are changed for the better in part because of the work that I do.”
Connecting the Dots; Paying it Forward
After a hearing one day, Magistrate Scheherazade Washington spoke with him about the need for more lawyers to work in this this practice area. “I asked her ‘What does this mean to me? Am I supposed to do something?’ The magistrate smiled and said yes.”
After getting some good advice on the subject, Cuni helped bring together Tracy Cook, the Executive Director of ProKids and a UC law alum; Verna Williams, now interim dean of the College; and Kimberly Helfrich, the Director of the Guardian ad Litem Division of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office to talk about what they could do to start addressing this issue.
The result was a Juvenile Law class which takes students through a typical juvenile court case. “I think the class was very successful and I hope it continues,” Cuni said.
Not content to volunteer in just these areas, Cuni also is working with ECDC Director Lew Goldfarb on a new project that would expand legal services in the community. “It is an interesting project we’re developing,” he said. More details will be coming soon!
For Cuni, volunteering isn’t just about doing what he feels is right. It also has practical implications.
“People hire who they know. Join community organizations. Meet people. Talk with them. Volunteer your time and skills. It doesn’t immediately result in business, but over time people will get to know you and will hire you—because they know who you are (and have worked alongside you)” says Cuni.
“You can find real satisfaction from that part of your life [volunteering]. Personally, I know I’ve helped with projects that have value and that I’ve helped to influence. You get the sense you’re helping to make positive changes.
“And that’s a good feeling.”
Panel Discussion Examines the Contours of Free Speech, Equality
With the background of an impending University of Cincinnati campus visit from alt-right activist Richard Spencer, a panel of professors gathered for an open discussion on free speech and equality on campus. The event was held on Monday, January 22 in the Tangeman Hall Cinema. It was moderated by Interim Dean Verna Williams, who in her opening statement, declared that this discussion would examine “the contours of free speech and equality.”
The panel consisted of Dr. Eric Jenkins from the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. John Paul Wright from the College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology, and Professor Ronna Schneider from the College of Law.
Professor Schneider was the first to speak. She stated, “I fell in love with the first amendment in my first year of law school, and I’ve been in love ever since.” Schneider focused on the legal side of the free speech discussion, noting that “hate speech” is difficult to define and that an outright ban on something so vague could yield unintended consequences. She also noted that the courts have not interpreted first amendment rights as absolutes and reminded the audience that the courts have reversed their own rulings in the past.
Dr. Wright spoke next. He was deeply concerned with preserving academic freedom and keeping universities as homes for open dialogue. He said, “I think free speech is the lifeblood of a university, and it’s our duty and obligation as scholars to protect it even when those who exercise it do so in a way that violates our own value systems.” Wright believes that suppressing speech—even vile speech—never benefits society.
Lastly, Dr. Jenkins spoke, and he offered insight that came from his research on communications in media. He observed that sometimes words go beyond speech and serve as actions (such as when one says “I do” in a wedding ceremony). Jenkins argued that “Spencer’s acts are intended to provoke and bully and therefore should not be considered free speech. Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater is not considered protected free speech and he’s essentially doing the same thing.”
Several students posed questions to the speakers, sharing their concerns and opinions. It was evident that UC’s student body grasped the gravity of both Constitutional rights and this university’s commitment to equality.
Writer: Pete Mills, graduate communication writer
Date: January 23, 2018
Professor Mark Godsey Named 2018 Harold C. Schott Scholarship Award Recipient
Cincinnati, OH— Verna Williams, interim dean at the College of Law, has announced that Professor Mark Godsey, veteran prosecutor, professor and director of the College’s Ohio Innocence Project, is this year’s recipient of the Harold C. Schott Scholarship Award. This award recognizes outstanding research and scholarly achievement by a member of the faculty of the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Professor Godsey will deliver a public lecture in the next academic year.
Professor Godsey is the Daniel P. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law and Director of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project. His scholarship focuses on wrongful convictions and police interrogation. Professor Godsey and the staff and students in the Ohio Innocence Project have thus far freed 25 individuals who were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in the state of Ohio.
His book, BLIND INJUSTICE: A FORMER PROSECUTOR EXPOSES THE PSYCHOLOGY AND POLITICS OF WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS, was published by the University of California Press in the fall of 2017. It was selected for "best book of 2017" lists and has been favorably reviewed and widely discussed in the national media from Salon and Daily Kos to Time, The Economist and The Nation. In December, the Cincinnati Opera announced that it is creating an opera based on the book, to premiere in 2019. A television series based on the book is also currently in the works.
From 2008 to 2017, Professor Godsey served on the Executive Board of the Innocence Network, the organization representing Innocence Projects in the United States and around the world, and currently serves as co-chair of the Network's International Committee. He has been a leading figure in spreading awareness of wrongful convictions, and with assisting lawyers and scholars in other countries to establish mechanisms for fighting wrongful convictions. Professor Godsey has widely lectured and consulted on the subject in Asia, Africa and Europe, and serves on the board of the European Innocence Network.
Professor Godsey is also a regular commentator on issues relating to criminal law and wrongful conviction in both the local and national press, and has appeared nationally on Larry King Live, Dateline NBC, CNN, ESPN, BBC, Forensic Files, and NPR among others. He is frequently quoted in papers and magazines across the country, including The New York Times, Newsweek, People and the Wall Street Journal. In 2017, Time highlighted Professor Godsey as a leading figure in the movement, profiling his career and many of his cases over the years. He is also the editor of the Wrongful Convictions Blog and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
UC Law Trial Practice team win unanimous vote at the annual Case Classic Trial Competition
Late November, 2017, the UC Law Trial Practice team swept the competition at the annual Case Classic Trial Competition, hosted by Case Western University Law School. UC’s team of Ben Sandlin, Allie Soisson, and Annie McClellan (all second year students), did not merely win; they earned the votes of every judge in every round, an uncommon and fantastic feat!
The Case Classic Trial Competition, held annually for over a decade, is sponsored by the Jonathan M. Ault Mock Trial Board. The board invites teams from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, and Alabama to compete. According to Case Western’s website, “The Case Classic provides a competitive collegial environment for multiple teams to tune up for the spring competition season.”
The competition has four rounds, two on each day. Within each round, two teammates act as either the defense or prosecution, until a certain point at which the opposing teams switch sides. Typically, a student who acts as a lawyer for the first half will play witness during the second, allowing teams of four to divide their work evenly. Sandlin, however, put his legal skills and Cincinnati Law training to the test and acted as both a prosecutor and a defendant.
UC’s team could sense that they were performing well, but they had no way of being certain. “The students don’t know where they’re stacked in the rounds,” says Professor Marjorie Corman Aaron, the team’s coach and director of the Center for Practice. “They have a sense [of how well they are performing] based on the feedback of the judges,” but the judges keep their scorecards hidden. Soisson recalled, “I was fairly confident that we were doing well throughout the competition, [but] we played several other talented teams, so I definitely didn’t think that we were undefeated.”
Interestingly, UC’s mock trial team has for years now received special coaching from trained actors. The year, the additional help came from CCM fellows Steven Rimke and Ann Marie White. Both Rimke and White are students of the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which sends its students across the world to hone their professional experience.
Soisson notes that Rimke and White enabled her to “think about how I am communicating with the jury. Most the time I focus on what words I want to use, but rarely do I think about how.”
Rimke says the training “focused on voice. We’re looking at inflections and different tones and using them effectively to make a pitch.” The team was “very receptive” and he was impressed with their progress.
Now, whether they become lawyers (or start new adventures as actors utilizing their royal training!), the Cincinnati Law community can applaud the accomplishments of this impressive trial team.
Additional appreciation for their dedication of time, experience and insight goes to the following trial practice co-faculty and coaches: Terry Nestor and Peter Stackpole, Alex Rodger, Matt Wiseman, and Dan Donnellon.
By: Pete Mills
Real-world Internship Solidified former OIP Fellow’s Desire to work in Indigent Defense
Chris Collman was an Ohio Innocence Project fellow during the last academic year and co-president of the College of Law’s Public Interest Law Group. He also worked in the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office. Over the summer, he lent some help to John Kennedy, who was working on the Joshua Maxton case. A winner of the Clarence Elkins scholarship, Collman was one of five UC third-year law students selected to intern for the full year at the Indigent Defense Clinic through the Hamilton County PD office.
— By Chris Collman
I was a fellow with OIP last year. I have been involved with the Hamilton County Public Defender’s office since January 2016.
First, I was with the Guardian ad Litem Division for a semester [providing services in Hamilton County Juvenile Court, investigating what solutions would be in the “best interests of a child” in cases where a complaint has been filed alleging a child to be abused, neglected, or dependent]. Then I was with the Felony Division for the summer and now work with the Indigent Defense Clinic, which allowed me to have my own municipal cases.
OIP was a wonderful experience that really cemented my desire to work in indigent defense. I also learned great investigative and client relation skills. Most important, it taught me the importance of conducting a thorough investigation early on because it only gets more difficult with time.
As for John’s (Maxton) murder trial, I helped review a bit of evidence, but that was it. It was a tremendous win for John, and having watched the case, I am confident that it was the correct decision.
OIP Internship Develops Criminal Defense Passion
Maxel Moreland was an Ohio Innocence Project fellow during the last academic year. During summer 2016, Moreland worked as a legal intern for the felony division, Office of the Hamilton County Public Defender, where he helped attorney and UC Law alum John Kennedy work on the case involving Joshua Maxton, an indigent client acquitted of murder. Moreland was one of five UC third-year law students selected to intern for the full year at the Indigent Defense Clinic through the Hamilton County PD office during the 2016/2017 academic year. Moreland also served as the inaugural president of UC Law’s National Association for Public Defense chapter, the first student chapter in the country.
By Maxel Moreland
Hearing that Joshua Maxton was acquitted of all of his charges last year was elating! The entire Public Defender’s office was buzzing with excitement.
Last year, I assisted John Kennedy by looking through phone records and by attempting to track down a witness. I had previously reviewed phone records on a case for OIP, so it was great to use the skills I had already learned to work on an ongoing murder trial.
The phone records we received from the police ended up not matching those from the phone company. The inconsistency was addressed at trial and may have played a part in creating reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Unfortunately, I could not track down the witness.
I started interning with the Hamilton County PD Felony Division during the summer. Mainly, I assisted felony attorneys with their cases, observed court, and argued bond hearings. As a fellow with the Indigent Defense Clinic (IDC), I was allowed to serve as a public defender with a truncated caseload. I handled cases from the moment they make it to the PD office until the end of trial or when the client takes a plea.
The Ohio Innocence Project provided me with the skills to conduct better interviews with clients and witnesses. It also taught me to think outside the box when it comes to constructing a defense for my clients.
My Ohio Innocence Project experience was life-changing and truly opened my eyes to the injustices served by our justice system. Pouring over these old cases and attempting to find new evidence of innocence is hard, but rewarding, work.
I think that I most enjoyed the investigatory aspect of the Ohio Innocence Project. It was always an adventure to seek out witnesses, especially adverse witnesses. The experience made me a more compassionate person and greatly strengthened my interviewing and interpersonal skills.
After working with the Ohio Innocence Project, it was refreshing to see a case conclude and receive that instant gratification. While the Ohio Innocence Project is a rewarding experience, it can be taxing to work on cases and know that they will not be resolved anytime soon. The work I do now with the IDC is incredibly fulfilling as I get to help clients at one of the hardest points of their lives while getting the instant gratification of completing a case.
The experiences that I have had with the Ohio Innocence Project and at the Hamilton County PD greatly influenced me and accelerated my passion for criminal defense work!
A Semester Review (... and a Sneak Peek at 2018!)
Fall @ Cincinnati Law (A Recap)
Fall 2017 at Cincinnati Law was full of interesting programming designed for professional growth; great opportunities for networking with the local legal community; and fun events that brought together students, staff, faculty, alumni and friends.
Here’s a brief snapshot:
The academic year kicked off with Welcome Week for our LLM students. It was followed by Week 1, the first week of law school for first-year students. In addition to introducing students to the rigors of law school, getting the layout of the law building, and meeting professors, it was also a great time for fun and games – courtesy of the SBA Cookout. 8.7.17-8.18.17
The LLM Program at the law school hosted Dr. Ildiko Szegedy-Maszak, affiliated with Universidad Pontificia Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia University, for the lecture “International Trade: Why a Balanced World Trade Regulation is Imperative for the Well Being of All.” Her lecture addressed the question of why rigid protectionism is not the answer for world trade created local problems. 8.17.17.
The UC Law Alumni Association hosted its summer social at Rhinehaus OTR, bringing together local Bearcats for an evening of fun and networking. 8.24.17.
And, the first month of school ended with the annual SBA Day of Service, an opportunity for the law school to utilize its strength in numbers and give back to the community by volunteering at locations around the city. Students, faculty, staff and local attorneys all participated in this event. 8.26.17.
Our student organizations hosted informative programs for the law student body. The Criminal Law Society hosted Professor Brian Howe'10 for a coffee corner event. The Republican Law Students organization hosted “Meet the Judges,” a non-partisan panel discussion that included members of the local and state judiciary: Justice R. Patrick DeWine, Supreme Court of Ohio; Hon. Beth A. Myers, Ohio Court of Appeals, First District; Hon. Leslie E. Ghiz, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court; Hon. Curt C. Hartman, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court; Hon. Lisa C. Allen, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court; Hon. Jackie Ginocchio, Hamilton County Municipal Court; and the Hon. Curt Kissinger, , Hamilton County Municipal Court.
Professor Kenyatta Hurd was the featured guest for the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice Coffee Corner. UC Law Women led an event featuring the women professors at the law school to discuss the issues women face in the legal community. 9.06.17
Throughout the semester, the Cincinnati Project on Law and Business brought informative speakers to the school, including Prof. Lawrence Glosten from Columbia Business School; Professor Ian Ayres, Yale Law School; Professor Quinetta Roberson, Villanova University School of Business, to name a few.
The Constitution Day lecture featured Hon. Martha Craig Daughtrey, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In her lecture, “The Increasing Significance of an Independent Judiciary,” she delved into the threats to judicial independence, from state judiciaries to even the federal courts. 9.18.17
Then, the College of Law, the Department of German Studies, and the European Studies Program hosted Dean Stefan Storr, University of Graz law faculty in Austria, for a week-long event, which included a lecture “National Identities in the EU as a Challenge for EU Law and National Constitutional Law.” 9.19.17
Responding to the events of the day, the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice began a year-long series “Hard (But Urgent) Conversations,” examining various aspects of racial injustice and looking at ways the law community can play a role in addressing and impacting these issues. Their first program, “After Charlottesville…” was the first in the series. 9.28.17
The 2nd Annual Bearcat Dash & Bash brought over 1800 walkers and runners to campus, raising funds for the OIP and for UC’s Athletics Department. 10.01.17
Judges Beth Myers, Judge Marilyn Zayas and Judge Charles Miller from the Ohio First District Court of Appeals heard arguments at the law school and led discussions about the cases afterward. 10.02.17
Paul Taylor, Chief Counsel, Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, House of Representatives, presented the lecture “Federal Tort Reform: Policy, Law and Practice” as the 2017 Schwartz Lecturer. He delved into the federal tort reform’s role in our representative republic within a separation of powers system. He then discussed the legal framework that governs federal tort reform, and concluded with a discussion of the nuts and bolts of modern federal tort reform, including legislative responses to threats such as terrorism, pandemics and cyber-attacks. 10.17.17
Each fall the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic (ECDC) hosts the “Free Legal Advice to Better Your Business” Clinic in collaboration with Duke Energy Law Department. This semester was no different. Many local small business owners and entrepreneurs had the opportunity to meet with attorneys to discuss everything from contracts to trademarks/copyrights. 10.26.17
The Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights hosted the “Sir Nigel Rodley Human Rights Conference,” focusing on the contributions of the late Sir Nigel Rodley to human rights and his areas of concern, as well as the challenges currently facing the international human rights community. Leading human rights advocates came to pay tribute. 10.28.17-10.29.17
UC Law Women hosted the first “Trunk or Treat” event for over 400 children in the local community. With bags of candy, great costumes, cool music, fun was had by all. 10.28.17
University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto visited the law school, sharing his strategic vision of the university and learning about the law school. 10.30.17
The law school hosted the program and panel discussion “Moving Beyond DACA and DAPA: What’s Possible for DREAMers Now?”. The event was moderated by Professor Yolanda Vazquez and included DACA recipients, UC representatives and attorneys from the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center. Here are a few pictures from the event. 11.01.17
The UC Law Alumni Association CLE and Annual Meeting brought together local attorneys for a day of ClE events. Topics included Ethics and Professionalism in Appellate Practice; Important Recent Cases from the Supreme Court of Ohio; What You Don’t Know about Criminal Law can Hurt You – and Your Clients; and Race, Class & Reform in the Carceral State. 11.03.17
Cincinnati Law hosted the first Celebration: ReConnect. ReImagine. ReIgnite event. This daylong lecture series and gala featured great speakers, great music, amazing food and lots of memories. With sold-out events in the morning and a jammin’ party atmosphere in the evening Cincinnati Law was “the place” to be that weekend. Guest speakers included Kathy Woeber Gardner, Sally Young, Chris Chapman, Billy Martin, and Aftab Pureval. The Exoneree Band, a group of musicians from around the country who were wrongfully convicted for a combined 100 years, were featured during the evening program. One band member, Ray Towler, was freed through the work of our own Ohio Innocence Project. Here are pictures from the event: Celebration 1 and Celebration 2. Plans are in the works to host the 2018 event. Stay tuned! 11.04.17
Professor Jacob Cogan, Judge Joseph P. Kinneary Professor of Law, gave the Harold C. Schott Lecture. His topic was “Money, International Organizations, and the Turn Away from Collective Decision-Making”. He discussed how international organizations are financed and, in particular, showed how contemporary means of financing have turned multilateral institutions into unilateralist ones. 11.15.17
Cincinnati Law’s student organizations ended the year with incredible programming that touched on “School Prayer and Other Mysteries of the Religion Clause” (ACS), Campus Speech: Can the First Amendment Tolerate Hate? (Federalist Society), Trump and Civil Liberties, and a movie screening of “Amreeka” (Muslim Law Students and ACS).
Finally, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center hosted a program on Solitary Confinement and the Death Penalty. 11.27.17
Looking Ahead to Spring 2018
Exciting programs are in the works for spring 2018. Here’s a sneak peek:
Speech and Equality (A Discussion). Among our most prized constitutional values are those of free speech and equality. A panel of experts will discuss what the constitution requires, how to resolve apparent conflicts between these values, and the significance of each to democracy.
This event features the following: Professor Omotayo Banjo, PhD., UC College of Arts & Sciences; Professor Eric Jenkins, Ph.D., UC College of Arts & Sciences; Professor John Paul Wright, Ph.D., CECH; and Professor Ronna Schneider, UC College of Law. The panel discussion will be led by Interim Dean Verna Williams.
Date/Time: January 22, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. Location: TUC Cinema.
Blind Injustice Book Signing Event. Professor Mark Godsey, Director of the OIP, will host a book signing event.
Date/Time: January 20, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. Location: Joseph Beth (Madison Rd.)
Movie Screening: Women in the Profession: Balancing the Scales”
Date/Time: February 15, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. Location: UC Law
Center for Practice CLE event (CLE 2.5 applied for)
Additional information coming soon.
Date: February 16, 2018 Location: UC Law
Judge in Residence Lecture. The Hon. Shira Scheindlin, former US District Court Judge will present “Race & Policing in the 21st Century: A Difficult Relationship”. She will trace the history of the relationship between law enforcement and race from the Civil War to the present. (CLE)
Date/Time: February 27, 2018 at 12:15 p.m. Location: Rm. 114, UC Law
YWCA Racial Justice Breakfast. The annual key note address will be livestreamed at the College of Law. Speaker will be Fania Davis, co-founder and executive director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.
Date/Time: March 28, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. Location: Rm. 118, UC Law
Professor Osagie Obasogie will present "A Fear of Too Much Justice: Revisiting McCleskey v. Kemp After 30 Years” as the Robert S. Marx lecturer. Professor Obasogie is the Hass Distinguished Chair and Professor of Bioethics, University of California, Berkeley, in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health. (CLE)
Date/Time: April 12, 2018 at 12:15 p.m. Location: Rm. 114, UC Law
The College will convene an interdisciplinary conference on the challenges to racial equality faced by Europe and the United States. “Transatlantic Approaches to Racial Equality:” Convergences & Divergences” will explore critical race theory and racial formation; intersectionality, civil society, and social movements; representation and media; and remedies, government enforcement, and private litigation. Keynote speaker will be Professor Cheryl Harris, UCLA School of Law. This event is sponsored by the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice, the European student Program, and the German Studies Department.
Dates: April 12-13, 2018 Location: UC Law
The Power of Storytelling: The Ohio Innocence Project, Cincinnati Opera Collaboration Brings Exonerees' Stories to Life
The Ohio Innocence Project and Cincinnati Opera’s new venture brings to the stage the experiences of the wrongfully convicted in a unique form—an opera—to debut in 2019.
Cincinnati, OH—The Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, Cincinnati Opera, and the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC) announce the creation of a contemporary opera, Blind Injustice. The opera is based on Cincinnati Law Professor Mark Godsey’s book by same name and interviews with six OIP exonerees. Blind Injustice will bring to life the grace, perseverance and forgiveness of these incredible men and women. Premiering during the 2019 opera season, this is the first collaboration of its kind. The opera will be composed by William Menefield to a libretto by David Cote. CCM Professor Robin Guarino will act as stage director and dramaturg.
“The stories of these six exonerees are powerful tales of perseverance and forgiveness after going through an ordeal most of us can’t even imagine,” says Mark Godsey, OIP Director. “Although the stories are inspirational in their own right, the music exponentially magnifies their emotional impact. So we are incredibly excited that the public will get to learn more about Ricky Jackson, Clarence Elkins, Nancy Smith, and the East Cleveland 3 in such a compelling, moving way. These individuals are heroes, bringing them to stage and sharing them with the public in this medium is the right thing to do. We feel incredibly lucky to be working with the Opera and YPCC on this important project.”
“Blind Injustice is a story about survival and dignity and asks the question: How could our criminal justice system allow six innocent people be wrongfully accused and convicted?” says Robin Guarino, stage director and dramaturg for the opera. “It is an honor to tell their story and to work with my creative team of David Cote, librettist; William Menefield, composer; Mark Godsey, author; the OIP; the YPCC; and Cincinnati Opera on this groundbreaking project."
Interim Dean of the Cincinnati Law School, Verna Williams, says, “This extraordinary collaboration sheds light on the tragedy of wrongful convictions plaguing our criminal justice system. Even more, it will demonstrate the grace of the exonerees enduring unimaginable hardship, the steadfastness of OIP working for their freedom, and the transformative power of this project for all involved. We are thrilled to be part of this creative exercise in social justice.”
“Cincinnati Opera is looking for innovative ways to collaborate with nontraditional partner organizations in an authentic way, to tell current stories of societal importance,” said Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations and new works development at Cincinnati Opera. “We are keenly interested in breaking through the stereotypes of what opera is in the 21st century, and this project is a perfect example of the type of new works Cincinnati Opera will pursue in future seasons.”
The Birth of Blind Injustice, the Opera
Blind Injustice is the result of a three-part collaboration between the OIP, the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC), and Cincinnati Opera. The OIP’s young professionals group, which focuses on building awareness about the OIP, reached out to the YPCC, an 800-member amateur chorus, in hopes of hosting a joint event. Once the parties started talking, they realized the impact that a joint performance piece could have. Soon thereafter, the Cincinnati Opera team joined the conversations, resulting in the conception of a one-of-a-kind musical performance. This unique artistic team hopes that sharing the real-life case stories of exonerees will bring greater understanding and empathy to the work of the OIP and other innocence organizations, as well as create opportunities for broader conversations about wrongful conviction in the United States.
About the Opera
The opera will focus on the life and experiences of these OIP exonerees:
- Ricky Jackson: He spent nearly 40 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—murdering a money-order collector. Mr. Jackson was sentenced to death; it is now known that the conviction was based on a lie of a then-12-year-old boy. At the time of his release, Mr. Jackson set the record for the longest-serving person to be exonerated in U.S. history.
- East Cleveland 3: Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover, and Eugene Johnson were wrongly incarcerated for 20 years. They were released after a key eyewitness recanted her testimony and after the revelation that information from police reports demonstrating their innocence had not been disclosed decades earlier.
- Clarence Elkins: He spent seven and a half years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit. Through DNA testing, Mr. Elkins was found innocent and the real perpetrator was caught; and
- Nancy Smith: A former bus driver, she served 15 years in prison for allegedly molesting small children in her care. After being proven innocent and released, Ms. Smith’s case received national attention, including being featured on a one-hour episode of Dateline NBC.
In addition, the OIP will be represented through two characters. One will be a composite character representing Mark Godsey earlier in his career as a prosecutor and now as an innocence lawyer; the other will be a fictional OIP law student, representing all of the OIP law students who worked to free these individuals through the years.
“The unique thing about this format is that it allows us to share the story of wrongful conviction and exoneree experiences to a broad audience,” says Godsey. “These may be people whose only experience with wrongful conviction is through a television program. Now, they’ll be able to hear directly from the exonerees. They’ll share their painful stories and how they survived and overcame despite what happened to them. We know that once you hear their stories, your heart will be touched.”
Participants in the project include a variety of individuals:
- From Cincinnati Opera: Marcus Küchle, Director of Artistic Operation and New Works Development and Co-Artistic Director of Opera Fusion: New Works
- From the University of Cincinnati: Mark Godsey, the Daniel L. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law and Director, OIP; Professor Robin Guarino, the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera, CCM, director and dramaturg for the opera.
- Others: William Menefield, composer; David Cote, librettist and journalist; KellyAnn Nelson, Artistic Director, YPCC.
In addition to the operatic performance piece, Blind Injustice will include opportunities for community involvement. More information will be shared as plans are completed.
Read the story in the Cincinnati Enquirer (12/8): Innocence Project Leader's Book at Heart of Cincinnati Opera's New Work
Ohio Innocence Project Awarded $125K Grant to Support New Criminal Justice Reform Program
Cincinnati, OH— The George Gund Foundation has awarded the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, a national leader in exonerating wrongly convicted individuals, a $125,000 grant to support a new criminal justice ethics and education initiative. This two-year grant is the third award the OIP has received this fall to expand and build upon its work.
“The Gund Foundation is a leader in promoting creative solutions to social problems. This grant will help us establish a national model for innocence education and reform,” said Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project. “We greatly appreciate the Gund Foundation’s confidence in OIP and the innocence movement.”
The OIP is one of the most well-known and successful innocence organizations in the nation. Through the efforts of OIP attorneys, staff and hundreds of clinic student fellows, 25 individuals have obtained their freedom on grounds of innocence to date. Cumulatively, they have served more than 471 years in prison.
Research has shown that there are many reasons for miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions in our criminal justice system—from contaminated DNA evidence and mistaken eyewitness identification, to ignorance of police best practices. The Gund grant, combined with $75K of existing support, will enable the OIP promote criminal justice reform and educate policymakers, the public, and others about best practices to prevent wrongful convictions.
Thanks to the Gund Foundation grant, the OIP will launch a four-pronged Criminal Justice and Education Project. Specifically, the OIP will:
1) hire an Ethics and Best Practices Educator, an attorney who will raise awareness of “best practices” within the criminal justice system that would help eliminate and remediate wrongful convictions;
2) develop an educational curriculum for the law enforcement community covering issues connected to wrongful convictions, such as false confessions and biases that inform eyewitness identification;
3) conduct a public education campaign in Southwest and Northeast Ohio that includes meeting one-on-one and with groups within the criminal justice system to discuss the OIP’s work and other issues relevant to improving criminal justice practices in Ohio; and,
4) collaborate with law firms in those communities to raise matching funds to keep this important work going long term.
“The Gund Foundation gift allows the OIP to take its work to the next level,” said Verna Williams, Interim Dean of the College of Law. “To increase its impact in the state and beyond, OIP has focused on criminal justice reform. In so doing, it is teaching our students how to use the law to make substantive change—in addition to addressing injustices. The Gund Foundation gift enhances the transformative potential of the OIP, not only for its clients, but also for future attorneys.”
Isabel Johnston, Law Student and Dreamer, Shares Her Story
On September 5, 2017 President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, the immigration policy that allowed minors who illegally entered or remained in the US to receive deferment from deportation, as well as eligibility for work permits. The rescission was delayed six months to allow Congress to work out a resolution.
The young people affected by DACA are called “Dreamers,” and their fate is uncertain. As they have increasing reason to worry that they may be soon forced out of the country, most keep secret their identities as Dreamers.
Some Dreamers, however, have spoken out with the hope that sharing their stories will dispel the myths surrounding the immigration issue. Isabel Johnston, a first-year law student, is one such Dreamer.
Johnston’s father was the first in her immediate family to travel from Peru to the states. After eight months apart, the rest of the family flew in to join him.
Johnston, who was six at the time, recalls, “There was this long hallway, and my dad’s at the end of it, and I’m with my mom and my siblings. He gets down on one knee and opens his arms for us to run into them.
I looked up to my mom, because I didn’t know who he was. My dad [had been] a big guy. I thought it was my uncle who looks like my dad but is much thinner. My dad had been working three jobs, sleeping two hours, and not actually eating anything. I didn’t recognize him.”
Despite this initial shock, Johnston and her family settled in. They first lived in Florence, Kentucky, but later moved to Texas for two years. When she was 15, Johnston’s parents sat her down and informed her that they were undocumented immigrants and explained the legal implications. Johnston says, “I [already] knew we weren’t citizens and that my parents didn’t vote. I didn't know what being undocumented meant. All I really knew was that it was bad and ugly and shameful.” They instructed her not to share this information with her siblings – or anyone.
Johnston was worried and disheartened. She knew that her family came from Peru, but she had not previously felt like a foreigner. She notes, “we were well integrated, I think. I don’t have an accent.” Johnston recalls classmates, unaware of her immigration status, making occasional green card jokes, but she maintains that she fit in with her peers.
Her first major complication came when she was in high school and wanted to sign up for college courses. She needed to fill out forms that asked for a social security number. Confused, she came to realize that she did not have one. Her instructors did not know what to do. Eventually, she found out that she could use her father’s Tax ID, but the episode stirred her. “I was embarrassed, really.”
Things got worse as friends started getting their first jobs and drivers’ licenses. “I just told people that my parents were strict and wouldn’t let me drive, which was only partially true.” The family’s undocumented status remained a secret to her peers the whole time.
But, notably, not a secret to the government. Like many migrants, the Johnstons came on tourist visas and overstayed them. They have paid taxes from day one. “The government has always known that we’re here,” states Johnston. Of paying taxes she notes, “we don’t get anything from it. We’re never going to see any of that money.”
The situation looked up with DACA’s passage. During her senior year of high school, Johnston got a work permit, a driver's license, and a social security number. She saw doors opening to her that she previously could not have counted on.
She graduated from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. There, she completed a self-designed program of study that focused on social justice issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. While in college, johnston began to share her status with her closest friends, feeling safe under the protection of DACA.
After college, she came here to Cincinnati Law. This fall semester, she was in class when she learned about DACA’s rescission. She saw reports on social media and saw she had messages on her family’s group-text. She remembers, “my dad had opened with ‘don’t worry, you guys are safe right now.’” Johnston's immediate reaction was to cry--for herself, her family, and the hundreds of thousands of other young people affected by the decision. Then she got to work, researching the issue to better understand what the future had in store for Dreamers.
Around this time, an immigration lawyer from Kentucky with whom Johnston had previously worked, contacted her and encouraged her to speak to a local news outlet about DACA. She thought, “no way my parents want me to do that.” They had always kept their identity secret.
But when Johnston mentioned to her father that she had been contacted by the news, he encouraged her to consider it. “My mind was blown,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the situation in a very different way than we would have before. I’ve been sharing my story and doing a lot more publicly.”
Coming out this way was not easy. Her decision initially left her mother worried, and her brother upset. Her father and sister, however, were supportive from the start. Johnston says they want her to “make sure that my message is clear and that there’s no confusion about what DACA is or was and what we’re looking for in the future.”
Johnston continues to be open about her status as a Dreamer. "Not only have I been open about my status, but I have been actively trying to make change," she said. (She plans to focus on human rights and immigration law as a career.) "I was interviewed on Fox19, I have spoken on immigration and Dreamer panels, and I have become more involved in the UC community. In October, I travelled to DC with fwd.us and over 100 other DACA recipients from 25 states to meet with our members of Congress. I shared my story with Senator Portman, KY Representatives Barr and Yarmuth, and staff of other members. I was empowered through this experience by making connections with so many other people in the same situation—something I have never been able to do before.
"I am continuously educating my peers and fighting for immigrants. Next summer, I will be returning to DC for an internship at an immigration firm which focuses on asylum work. In addition to working with HRQ, I am the 1L rep for Latino Law Student Association and have helped to create informative material to share with others at the law school, so they too can participate in this fight."
Writer: Pete Mills