By Austin Bybee
“I have faith in our justice system but when it fails people it fails them in a huge way,” student Rebekah Watts said when explaining why she decided to join the Innocence Clinic at the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
The Innocence Clinic introduces students to the justice system from the perspective of a wrongfully convicted individual. Students learn about the system by dissecting and investigating closed cases where errors may have been made resulting in the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center take on cases of individuals who maintain their innocence even after years, and in some cases decades, in prison.
Watts is a second-year student at the College of Law.
After completing her undergrad, Watts knew she wanted to go back to school at some point but she wasn’t exactly sure which graduate program to pursue. Eventually, she decided on law school. Watts arrived at this decision upon realizing that the law affects everyone at one point or another yet remains largely inaccessible for the majority of people, especially for low-income individuals and those belonging to minority communities.
“I wanted a career that provided a meaningful service to underprivileged people,” Watts said.
Born and raised in Utah, the S.J. Quinney College of Law was an easy choice for Watts to pursue that career. Not only would she be close to family and friends but the strong clinical program at the College of Law was also highly attractive to her.
But once law school started, Watts realized that it was going to be more difficult than she had expected.
“I’m not a very anxious person but law school brought out a lot of anxiety and self-doubt. This was especially the case in the first semester. I definitely felt like I was dealing with imposter syndrome,” she explained.
Watts’ classmates have made all the difference in helping her combat these negative feelings and finding success in law school.
“What gets me through law school is the amazing relationships I’ve built. I’m able to talk through difficult concepts with the friends I’ve made which either helps clarify issues or allows me to see that, no I can do this and that I really am getting it,” said Watts.
Yet one of the most rewarding experience of law school for Watts has come from her time in the Innocence Clinic.
Watts was drawn to the Innocence Clinic because she wanted to help individuals that were falsely accused and to see how and why things go wrong within our system.
Her time in the clinic has taught her that each case takes a tremendous amount of time and research but that the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center has had some great successes. She has also found it to be encouraging to see how the innocence movement at large is growing across the country.
And while Watts’ experience with the clinic has been a little different this year than in years past due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all the students continue to work together as much as possible. As Watts explained, the clinic works like a mini law firm. Students are assigned individual cases but meet weekly for case rounds wherein students take turns presenting their case to the group to help brainstorm and overcome potential barrier points.
The particular case that Watts has been assigned is an interesting one. Her client has spent over 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. While the specific details of the case are subject to confidentiality, Watts’ case has progressed beyond the initial investigative phase. Watts is currently drafting a Rule 60 Motion to reopen DNA testing for her client because although the original DNA results were inconclusive, newly developed DNA technology has shown her client to be wholly innocent.
Watts often meets with the clinic’s supervisors over Zoom to discuss her work. She also has met with local attorneys from Dorsey & Whitney to strategize on the case as they will be the ones to present the argument in court pro bono alongside RMIC attorneys.
“The entire work is a collaborative effort. It’s been a great experience and I’m hoping for the best for my client, he deserves to come home,” Watts said.
If Watts’ current motion is successful, the next step on the case would be to write a motion to vacate based on the DNA testing results.
Watts’ experience in the clinic has taught her many things but above anything else, the importance of being thorough and doing her due diligence as she graduates and enters the world of being a practicing attorney.
“As an advocate, I want to make sure I’m being honest and truthful and doing a diligent job because if I’m not, justice may be denied to one side or maybe both depending on the outcome of the case. The work we do as lawyers, especially in the context of criminal cases, has larger ramifications beyond just winning whatever case we are working on at the moment, our work truly affects people’s lives, and I think that is important to remember,” she said.