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UBC Innocence Project relies on students, donations to review cases of wrongful conviction

Last Updated Nov 14, 2020 at 8:26 pm PDT

FILE (Courtesy Facebook/UBC)

Students at the UBC Innocence Project help to review cases that may have resulted in wrongful conviction

The project reviews up to 20 cases simultaneously, it takes from eight to 12 years to thoroughly review one case

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The recent conclusion to the Christine Jessop murder case in Ontario highlights the work required to take up the cause of someone who has been wrongfully convicted.

In the absence of an independent commission of review, often that work falls to law students.

At UBC, such cases are examined by students enrolled in the UBC Innocence Project at the Allard School of Law. Students have to commit a year to a special course, on top of their regular course load.

“It allows for really useful education for law students,” says Tamara Levy, director of the Innocence Project at UBC. “These students are coming out of first-year law and it’s a huge learning curve for them to even know where to begin, and that’s why it’s a structured course and they work with supervising lawyers.”

At any given time, the project is analyzing 20 cases, and since it’s not a full-time effort, it takes from eight to 12 years to thoroughly review a case.

“Because students only have eight to ten hours a week, I can’t give them more than one case. They are all homicide files, so they are all large and complicated files.”

Once the summer rolls around, work on the cases is halted until another batch of students starts the work up again.

“One step forward, two steps back — so it’s a very lengthy process. But for people who don’t have anyone else looking at their cases, they’d rather have first and second-year law students, versus nobody looking at them.”

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In an ideal world, Canada would have an independent review commission, says Levy.

“It’s been recommended by seven commissions of inquiry that we should have a commission to review these types of cases. I believe it’s something the federal government is working on, as it was one of the items outlined in the mandate letter to the minister of justice last year, but I’m sure COVID has delayed that process. Ideally, we would have an independent commission with a full-time staff looking into these cases.”

While the project basically runs on volunteers, Levy stresses there are significant expenses associated with poring over evidence.

“I just paid $10,000 to an expert for one report. Expert reports, which is a large part of what we do, get second opinions on forensic evidence, whether it’s the pathology or toxicology.”

Only a fraction of the funds come from the Law Foundation of BC. The rest, Levy notes, comes from donations.

She is especially proud of a case students worked on that is now in the courts. Phillip Tallio is trying to get his second-degree murder conviction overturned at the BC Court of Appeal. He was jailed for the murder of his 22-month-old cousin back in 1983.

“We started working on it in 2010, and the student who took it on continued with it. We were involved in a lot of the processes that are being referred to in court, so I’ve been in court watching this pretty closely.”

The Tallio case continues later this month.