In the clinic, housed inside the Texas Tech School of Law, law students perform as true lawyers, working to secure the release and exoneration of those falsely convicted.
Strings of yarn are stretched from picture to picture, combining to look like an elaborately constructed spider web. The strings connect pictures of people to items, items to places and places to people, all involved in the case of Edward Ates, an East Texas man who was convicted of murder in 1998, who was just recently paroled and whose case the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech has been working toward exoneration.
It's the most high-profile, but not the only, case the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech has taken on. As part of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX), Lubbock attorney and clinic director Allison Clayton and her four third-year law students take on appellate cases from around the state, with each student handling about 10 cases per year, just as a practicing attorney would.
"The reason I applied to the Texas Tech School of Law was because it had an Innocence Clinic," said third-year law student Joelle Gonzales. "During my second year of law school, Allison Clayton gave a speech regarding the Innocence Clinic and this speech only solidified my desire to be a part of it. Now that I am in this position, I know this is what I want to do with my life."
It is an intense and demanding learning environment that pushes students every day to act and perform just like they would if they were part of a law firm. But it also is a very rewarding experience that, Clayton says, is unlike any other Innocence Clinic in a law school in the state of Texas that she knows of.
"What sets our clinic apart is that it is very intensive," said Clayton, who also is the Deputy Director of the Innocence Project of Texas and an adjunct professor in the School of Law. "These student-attorneys really are acting just like a fully licensed attorney would act. I supervise them, so I know everything they are doing, but at the end of the day they are the ones doing the work, and that is a big deal."
Unlike other clinics
The Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech operates as part of IPTX, which provides legal services to inmates who maintain their innocence for crimes of which they have been convicted and whose appeals process has run its course. IPTX played a critical role in the exoneration of former Texas Tech student Timothy Cole.
Cases presented to and accepted by IPTX are distributed to the eight Innocence Clinics at law schools throughout the state, including the South Texas College of Law in Houston, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University and law schools at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and Southern Methodist University. Funding for the clinics comes from the state Legislature.
The Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech has been in existence in some form since the early 2000s, but only recently, since Clayton took over in 2016, has the clinic begun to take off. A big reason for that is how Clayton has restructured the clinic into one that is a very intensive, hands-on, practical experience.
"It appears to me as though a lot of the other clinics utilize law students by giving them tasks better suited for paralegals. I fear some may even been simply putting papers from one pile and putting them into another, without actually doing any litigation. That's not what we do," Clayton said. "These students are not in school to be paralegals, they're in school to be lawyers. In our clinic, they are expected to do things and act just like licensed attorneys. It could not be more hands-on."
Clayton is adamant that just pushing papers is not a good practice for law students, nor does it provide the kind of help those who have sought the Innocence Project's assistance desire. Student-attorneys at Texas Tech are in the field, interviewing witnesses and, sometimes, suspects, pouring over evidence, and doing all the legal writing the case requires.
Eventually, student-attorneys will go to court with their client when appropriate. Everything a practicing attorney would do for a client, these student attorneys do.
"The Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech has provided me with real-world experience, enhanced my writing and researching skills and allowed me to interview and speak with real clients," said third-year law student Megan Soliz. "I have learned more about writs of habeas, what is needed to file a writ of habeas and how difficult it is to get a retrial or to get a client exonerated than I could have anywhere else. I also have realized that juries can be very unpredictable. The hands-on, real-world experience you get from working in a clinic is unparalleled, in my opinion."
An edge needed
Applying for acceptance into the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech is, itself, quite the process.
Only four students are accepted per year, covering the fall and spring semesters. Only third-year law students are allowed to apply, and they can be from any discipline of law, from oil and gas law to criminal law to civil law. Working in the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech comes on top of all other course work and reading for students who are selected.
"It has been a challenge because working for the clinic can be very consuming both personally and with your time," said Stephen Grant, a third-year law student who is part of the clinic this year. "The first two weeks felt like a crash-course in time management, but it now seems much more regimented and manageable."
Clayton also asks that students who work in the clinic be good writers because there is a good deal of litigation done through written legal documents. They have to be hard workers because there are people's lives on the line, and they have to be able to grasp very complicated, very heady legal issues and understand their application for a client's case.
Among all the prerequisites for students, though, Clayton is most adamant about clinic students having not only work ethic and a thorough understanding the rules of ethics, but a fire in them that sets them apart from their colleagues.
"You have to have an edge about you," Clayton said. "You have to be tough, smart, and hard-working in degrees not matched by other students. Law school will put you to the test more than anything you can possibly imagine, and the Clinic is one of the most intense and intensive experiences a law student can go through. Some students simply don't have the mettle for it."
Clayton can see the right kind of student well before they ever become eligible for the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech, having researched potential applicants through talking with professors and peers through their first two years of law school. She has a good idea even before the interview process whether a student will be a fit or could possibly withstand the rigor of the Clinic's.
"When you come into the clinic, you have to hit the ground running," Clayton said. "It is a deluge of information, and you just have to go."
Most students who are chosen for the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech already have a job lined up after graduation, so working in the clinic (even though it comes with 12 credit hours) is completely voluntary. At the same time, it also can be rewarding and give law students a leg up when they do graduate from law school.
"No matter what kind of law I end up practicing, what I've learned in the Clinic will make me a better attorney." Gonzales said. "My understanding of everything from client relations, case investigations, trial strategy, negotiations, time management, persuasive writing, and general litigation has grown tremendously thanks to the Clinic."
While students in the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech are under a great deal of pressure, Clayton also wants to make sure the students aren't wound so tight that they afraid to fail. She expects her students to know the facts of each case, know ethics rules and be good writers. Aside from that, Clayton teaches the students everything else they need to know.
"I teach them the procedures and the law, and we maneuver the legal waters of each case together," Clayton said. "It's a very narrow area of law that, realistically, they will not get in a law school class. There's just not a class that teaches these things, so I teach them the procedures and substantive law applicable to each case as we go through the year. We are truly a team."
She also wants her students to know that she has their back, will never put them into a dangerous situation but also will push them if she feels they aren't putting forth their best effort every day.
"Allison is brilliant and beyond amazing at her job. It's that simple," Soliz said. "She has high expectations for each of us, but with good reason. All of our clients are innocent, otherwise they wouldn't be our clients. We are dealing with real people's lives here, people who have been wrongly imprisoned for decades. We should have high expectations for ourselves."
A career detour
Clayton was unlike many other law school students who have an eye on becoming a big-time civil lawyer making a lot of money and living the life that comes with that success.
Upon graduation from the Texas Tech School of Law, she had already lined up a prestigious clerkship with the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth and was well on her way to accomplishing the three goals she had set for herself in law school – never having her own practice, never doing criminal defense and never doing family law.
"I was dead wrong on two of those things," she said. "It just goes to show you how naïve you are when you're 24."
While serving this clerkship, Clayton remembers an appellate case that came across her desk, her job at the time being to make sure the law was followed and the defendant received a proper trial. But after reading all the documents and looking at evidence, she failed to understand how a jury found this person guilty. That, however, was as far as it went, but it's a case that stayed with Clayton all through her clerkship.
Life then threw Clayton a curve. She became pregnant and gave birth prematurely to her first child, and soon discovered she was unable to be a mom and devote the 90 hours per week required of many civil law firm associates. So she found a clerkship at the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Texas that permitted her to have much more reasonable hours and still tend to her daughter.
A large part of her job at this new clerkship was post-conviction litigation, which is not done in most law firms simply because it is one that costs a good bit of money with none coming back in return. But it is becoming increasingly necessary considering the number of cases IPTX takes on each year.
"I would routinely see cases where I thought the guy was innocent but he didn't plead something right, or he was procedurally barred or he didn't know what to say, and I couldn't say it for him," Clayton said. "I had to stay neutral with the federal judiciary. It really bothered me that our criminal justice system, the system to which I have dedicated my life and the Constitution to which I have sworn a lifelong allegiance, is being violated and I can't do anything about it. It's the worst feeling."
In 2014, Clayton decided to leave her position with the federal judiciary, and in doing so she broke one of her rules by opening up her own practice with a focus on appellate work. Her passion for the law and for appellate work is evident when she argues, delivering a personable and passionate appeal while also commanding a tremendous grasp of relevant legal precedence.
She experienced some successes in her practice when a judge asked her to take a double homicide case. Soon after agreeing, she started getting calls from other attorneys telling her she had an innocent client, an unusual occurrence in appellate work.
She knew, however, her client would need extensive post-conviction litigation—litigation which her law firm did not have the war chest to fund. So she tracked down Mike Ware, the executive director of IPTX, in a restaurant and would not let him leave until he agreed to at least look at the case.
Her determination made an impression on Ware. During this time, the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech was without a director, and Ware asked Clayton if she would take over the clinic's operation. She was initially reluctant since the clinic was off campus at the time and looked nothing like it does today.
Ware, however, was persistent and kept asking. The more he asked, the more Clayton looked into the situation and realized this would be a terrific way for law students to learn post-conviction work while also providing significant help to people who desperately needed it. So, she finally agreed.
"It's only my third year of doing this, and it's been a great experience. I don't know of any other clinic in the state that does it the way we do it," Clayton said. "Most clinics use their students like they would use paralegals. But they are capable of so much more than that. Our students are brilliant and hard-working, and in the Clinic they can shine."
Every year, Clayton attends a national conference where innocence organizations from all over the U.S. gather, and for the first couple of years she would go around to the directors of other similar innocence clinics and pick their brains about how their clinics are structured.
This past conference, the tables turned. Word had spread enough about how effective and intensive the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech is that Clayton said she had directors from two different Ivy League schools approach her table to discover how her clinic was structured and operates.
"I laughed and teased them, 'You guys are the ivy leagues, right.'" Clayton said. "The magic is in the students. You must believe in them and their abilities. If you get the right students and let them run with their cases, there's no holding them back."
Ware said Clayton's experience, excellent legal skills and passion for innocence work have proven to be the right combination to lead the Texas Tech Innocence Clinic.
"The Texas Tech Innocence Clinic students are extremely active in the actual investigations of the cases," Ware said. "The fact that they are required to commit for a year lends needed continuity to the innocence investigations they undertake that sometimes take several years. I know most other clinics only require a commitment for a single semester. I believe the clinic prepares students for success after graduation extremely well."
Clayton's style and her demands have resonated with the students in the clinic. And because her students are invested in the clinic and their clients, they are free to make suggestions on how to do things more efficiently or effectively.
"Allison is the best in the state at what she does," Grant said. "Having her as a mentor is perhaps the clinic's greatest asset. She does expect you to work – hard. But her dedication for the Innocence Project and her general encouraging attitude make the experience nothing but enjoyable."
Clayton is not satisfied with where the clinic is. By pushing her students to leave a "legacy of greatness," her goal is to have the Innocence Clinic at Texas Tech securing more exonerations than any other clinic in the U.S. on a yearly average and is confident that can happen as the clinic continues to grow.
"The State of Texas is full of wrongful convictions. We ought to be knocking them out of the park," Clayton said. "I want our Clinic to be the most successful innocence clinic in the nation. And when people look at Tech and say, 'Holy cow, they do that with only four people?'
"I want to say, 'Yeah, we do.'"