MORGANTOWN, WV —The West Virginia Innocence Project, housed at the West Virginia University College of Law, is one of 13 organizations nationwide selected by the United States Department of Justice to participate in its Upholding the Rule of Law and Preventing Wrongful Convictions Program. WVIP will receive $359,208 to bolster its continuing efforts to investigate and challenge wrongful convictions in the Mountain State.
Founded in 2012, the WVIP aims to free innocent West Virginians who are in prison for crimes that they did not commit. The Project also works to correct the problems that lead to wrongful convictions in our legal system through policy advocacy and educational outreach. In addition, as a law clinic, WVIP trains six to eight law students per year under the direction of two highly skilled attorneys with expertise in post-conviction claims. WVIP also employs four to five undergraduate interns from WVU seeking experience related to future law careers.
In the last four years, the Project has secured two exonerations. In 2018, WVIP overturned the conviction of Charles “Jason” Lively, who was convicted of murder based on outdated and invalid arson investigation techniques. In 2021, it secured the dismissal of charges against Nathaniel Barnett after previously overturning his conviction of murder based on DNA evidence that implicated another perpetrator.
“This award celebrates our very own West Virginia Innocence Project as a nationally-recognized program known for careful and thorough post-conviction work and ensures that this clinic will have the resources to maintain that reputation for years to come,” said Amelia Smith Rinehart, William J. Maier, Jr. Dean of the College of Law. “Guiding this project, Director Melissa Giggenbach and Staff Attorney Devon Unger epitomize the College of Law’s commitment to transformative service and do so while training a new generation of public service lawyers with a dedication to justice in their communities.”
The WVIP applied to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance program in June of 2022 with the goal of obtaining funding to hire and retain staff and to increase resources for travel, outreach and investigative activities that support the Project’s review of applications for representation from West Virginians with post-conviction claims of innocence. The award will also facilitate outreach related to the recently passed “junk science” amendment to West Virginia’s post-conviction laws, legislation drafted by WVIP and signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice in April 2021.
"With this federal funding, WVIP will finally be able to put our new post-conviction forensic science law to use and seek out and work to exonerate innocent West Virginians who were convicted using flawed science that has since been discredited,” Giggenbach said.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment and opportunity for the West Virginia Innocence Project,” said Professor Nicole McConlogue, director of the College of Law’s clinical program. “It demands fairness and accountability of our most foundational institutions. With this crucial support, WVIP can continue to stand up for people who have fallen through the cracks.”