They are novice investigators. But they've got the time and determination to comb through files, and the faith that wrongs can be righted.
At about 40 American colleges and universities, students in law and journalism classes are working for something far more important than a grade.
Their "lab" is the country's prisons. When an inmate claims innocence, these students are often on the front lines to prove it. Sometimes, they are the last resort.
Last month, five journalism students from Webster University in St. Louis helped persuade a Missouri judge to grant Richard Clay a new trial. Convicted of first degree murder, Mr. Clay has been on death row for seven years.
It wasn't easy. The students in Prof. Ed Bishop's investigative-reporting class had each put in as many as 80 hours a week since March - reading court documents, conducting interviews, and visiting prisons and small towns across Missouri.
Professor Bishop says his motive in teaching the class was not to prove guilt or innocence, but to have his students practice investigative techniques. They worked directly with Clay's lawyers and wrote an article on the case. (No newspaper has yet expressed an interest in publishing it.)
Bishop modeled his investigative-reporting class after David Protess's class at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.
Five years ago, a team of Professor Protess's student journalists entered the media spotlight themselves when they helped win the release of three innocent men from prison (one of whom was on death row). The case prompted a flood of letters to Protess from inmates claiming innocence, and inspired other teachers and students around the country.
"Some of the most difficult reporting that you can wind up doing, Protess is asking of students," says Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione, a journalist for more than 25 years. "It leaves them with a good deal of self-confidence about their ability to handle any kind of story."
Much of the movement for student investigations was initiated by Professor Barry Scheck of the Cardozo School of Law in New York, who defended O.J. Simpson and whose work has exonerated nearly three dozen men on post-conviction DNA testing. In 1992, Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project in New York, a program through which Cardozo law students are currently investigating 200 possible wrongful convictions. Other innocence projects and equal-justice initiatives have been initiated nationwide in the past two years.
While law students tend to focus on getting new trials for their defendants, journalism students aim to be as objective as possible throughout their investigations. Protess is cautious about having his students' assessment of guilt or innocence muddle the process. The goal is to find the facts, he says, and let a judge proceed from there.
But that doesn't mean being emotionally detached. Bishop's students had to learn to cope with a range of emotions as they viewed videotaped footage of a bloodied victim, visited Clay in prison, and ultimately questioned a justice system they had always been taught to believe in.
"I had bad dreams all the time," says Holly Rauch, who graduated from Webster in May but is still helping with the case.
Bishop says he had reservations about exposing inexperienced students to a brutal murder and a seemingly unjust trial. "Throughout the course I was worried about the psychological well-being of my students," he says. "We're looking at the darkest side of our society. I know I lost sleep over thinking about the case."
Erica Burleson, one of Bishop's students who visited Clay on death row, says an important aspect of the work was simply listening.
"I don't think anybody really listened to Clay from the beginning of this," she says. "Even his own defense attorneys wouldn't hear his story until the trial began. We're still just working on the truth, but we think that does involve getting him off death row."
When Medill student Sarah Bellows entered a quiet prison hallway last April, a chill rushed over her. She was searched head to toe and told to leave everything but a pencil and sheet of paper behind. She and two classmates braved the eerie hallways to interview Maurice Carter, who has served more than 25 years for the nonfatal shooting of a Benton Harbor, Mich., police officer.
After spending three hours in a conference room with Mr. Carter, upon whom prison life has taken a visible toll, Ms. Bellows walked away both shaken and determined to work harder.
"The fact that college students could find more information on a 25-year-old case in three months than police and investigators back in 1973 is really sad," she says.
She now has a full-time marketing job in Seattle, but she still e-mails advice to her investigative team, driven not by grades, money, or fame, but the chance to find out what really happened.
"I am confident that one day Carter will be free," she says.
After years of appeals and subsequent denials, Carter has one more chance to persuade a judge to grant him a new trial. The Northwestern students who began working on the case in March believe they are hot on the trail of the actual shooter, and Carter's lawyers are waiting anxiously before they file his final appeal. On several occasions Carter has been offered a shortened sentence provided he confesses, but he has maintained his innocence.
Undergraduate students from a variety of majors have at times been tapped at critical moments in a case. With just two weeks before the scheduled execution of Virginia convict Calvin Swann in 1999, lawyers were in desperate need of hard evidence that their defendant had an extreme mental illness and an inadequate defense. Attorney John Howley, a 1980 graduate of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., contacted government professor Beau Breslin and asked if any students would volunteer to help with research.
The question was not whether Mr. Swann committed murder - he did - but whether someone with his mental illness should be executed. Ten students joined an e-mail network with attorneys and produced detailed documentation of Swann's mental capacity. Just four hours before his scheduled execution, the governor granted clemency.
While many criminal-justice experts are encouraged by students' ability to help release innocent people from prison, the frequency with which they have revealed wrongful convictions leaves some wondering just how big the cracks in the system are.
"It's not that lawyers are bad or that people don't care," says Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute. "It's not even that they're overworked. It's that ... the whole criminal-justice system has come under strain in the past few decades, mainly because we've used it to deal with all our social problems."
The main contribution students make to these cases is dedicating their time to digging up and documenting evidence that can sway a case, he adds. "When anybody puts these kinds of resources into something, you're going to produce better results."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, for every seven inmates executed in the US since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, one has been found innocent and released.
"It's inspiring that young people are making a difference in this country, and it shows the power of the press to right wrongs," Protess says. He first got interested in issues of justice when, as a child in Brooklyn, he followed the controversial imprisonment and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage at the height of the McCarthy era.
Though Richard Clay and Maurice Carter are still behind bars, Ms. Rauch and Bellows remain optimistic. Both hope to help change the justice system, whether it be through their own investigations or through writing articles about their experiences.
"One of the most important things I took away from this class is that anyone really can make a difference in the world," Bellows says.