Though she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in theater performance from the University of Utah and spent five years pursuing acting in Houston and New York City before beginning law school, Professor Jensie Anderson hadn’t set foot on stage for nearly 30 years. That changed in fall 2023.
“In October, I was involved in a reading of Roe, a play about the Roe v. Wade case and a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. I played Jane Roe’s attorney, Sarah Weddington, and it was a terrific experience,” Anderson recalls. “It reminded me how much I love being on stage and re-sparked my passion for acting.”
Anderson’s performance in Roe led to a second act: The Local Independent Theatre Company (LIT Co.) asked if she would do a “talkback” after a performance of The Exonerated in fall 2023. The play follows individual court cases of five men and one woman—three are Black, and three are white—from their arrests to their exoneration and release.
“I jumped at the opportunity to participate. Not only is The Exonerated a powerful piece of theatre, it is also a chance to educate people about the tragedy of wrongful convictions. I was truly honored and humbled that LIT Co. asked me to be involved,” Anderson recalls. “Later this spring, LIT Co. will be doing the play again as continuing legal education (CLE) for Utah State Bar members, and I will again have the opportunity to be on a post-performance panel discussing wrongful convictions.”
Since she started teaching at the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1999, Anderson has been involved in the work she discussed at The Exonerated talkback. The late Professor Lionel Frankel originally asked her to be the vice president of a new innocence project at the law school.
“I readily agreed and found that innocence work fulfilled everything I had hoped for in the law. It allowed me to help individuals who were wrongfully convicted come home from prison, and it also allowed me to use what we learned from the innocence cases to make systemic changes to our flawed criminal justice system,” Anderson says. “I ran an Innocence Clinic at S.J. Quinney College of Law for more than 20 years and have recently expanded the clinic to include general post-conviction cases where the individual may not be innocent but their constitutional rights were violated by the criminal justice system.”
Now called the Post-Conviction Clinic, this opportunity allows students help individuals who did not receive due process during the trial process or who may be innocent.
“The Post-Conviction Clinic is an opportunity for students to put what they have learned in the classroom into practice. We work in cooperation with the Utah Indigent Appellate Division, so the students get to work with attorneys who are doing this work every day,” she says.
And Anderson celebrates her clients’ wins as well. In November 2023, the District Court reversed its decision in State v. Ashby, finding that Ms. Caroline Ashby was factually innocent and awarding her compensation for the nearly eight years she spent as a wrongfully convicted person in prison. Ashby had been convicted of sexually abusing her son, who later admitted she had never sexually abused him.
Though Anderson loves helping clients who have not received justice, she notes that the best part of working at S.J. Quinney is the students.
“They are deeply intelligent, passionate, eager to learn, and are genuinely great people. I learn from them every day, and I can’t imagine having a better career as an attorney,” Anderson says. “I truly love working with the students—teaching them about this complicated work, seeing their passion develop, and seeing the real possibility that no matter what kind of law they end up practicing, they will do pro bono work throughout their careers.”
The show must also go on for Anderson, who has more theater plans in the works.
“I have been cast in a play at Pygmalion Theatre Company called Mother of the Maid about Joan of Arc’s mother. It is a lovely play that will open on May 3, 2024,” Anderson says. “I have also been working with Julie Jensen, a renowned local playwright, on her new play and am hoping to audition for it in the fall of 2024.”