Project for the Innocent: An Interview with Laurie Levenson and Adam Grant

Professors Laurie Levenson and Adam Grant are co-founders of the Project for the Innocent based at Loyola Law School of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The clinic provides Loyola law students the opportunity to work with faculty to represent wrongfully convicted individuals in their post-conviction appeals.

Amanda Knox

I was wondering if you both could talk to me about your origins as criminal defense attorneys and advocates.

Laurie Levenson  

I started as a prosecutor, to be honest with you. I was a federal prosecutor out of law school. My job was to put people in prison. And I did that for about eight and a half years. I taught at night. And then I decided to go into teaching full time. And it was when I became a professor many years into that, that I had these incredible students who came to me and said, “Can we do something that helps people?” That incredible student was Adam Grant. That’s when I switched over to creating the Project for the Innocent at Loyola law school. And that was my foray into defense work.

Adam Grant

I went to law school late in life.I didn’t really know what I wanted to do exactly. I was interested in criminal law, but mostly I just wanted to do something that helped people. I interned everywhere that I could think of, then when Professor Levinson and I started working on Obie Anthony‘s case, that was just about as fascinating and as profoundly helpful to somebody who needed help as anything I could think of. And it all just kind of went from there. We ended up starting the clinic together shortly thereafter. 

Amanda Knox  

I understand that you began to be interested in the criminal justice system after you sat on a jury?

Adam Grant 

That’s right. Before that I was involved in all kinds of writing and performance and so forth. I had not been summoned to a jury until I was in my late 30s. And when I went to sit on the jury in a criminal case, it was so dramatic. After years of trying to write fictional drama, it was so dramatic. People’s lives were at stake and people’s livelihoods and people’s freedom. And even in the case that I sat as a juror on ― which wasn’t a violent crime, it was about fraud ― it wasn’t what you think of as high drama, but it was really high drama for the woman who was on trial. And it made me think, “Wow, I could do something for somebody every day at the biggest time of crisis in their lives. I could actually use my expertise to really try to make this a manageable moment in somebody’s life.” It was really just exciting and irresistible.

Amanda Knox 

Tell me about the origins of the Project for the Innocent.

Laurie Levenson 

Well, as I mentioned, I really give all credit to Adam and his colleagues, because it’s really too easy for a nerdy law professor to just sit at her desk and do research, but during my time as a law professor, I did some commentary on the trials of the century in Los Angeles: Rodney King, OJ, and the others. And so people would write to me and say that they’ve been convicted unfairly. So we were able to help. But I didn’t have anything really formalized. So it was really great when Adam came forward. It started very small at a round table in my office. We’ve gone from that to a real clinic with staff attorneys. We have hundreds of people who have reached out to us now. I’ve tried a lot of cases, but some of the things I’ve seen being done in these cases they would have never gotten away with when I was a prosecutor. That’s all I can say.

Amanda Knox 

How does the Project for the Innocent compare to other Innocence Projects?

Laurie Levenson 

We started out as a Project for the Innocent because we weren’t sure yet that we would be part of the network. The main project out of New York spread across the nation. We were the new kids on the block and we wanted to prove to ourselves and to others that we really belonged. Then we formally applied to be part of the Innocence Network. We have a huge area we cover. We are the only Innocence Project in all of Los Angeles, but we go all the way down through Orange County and all the way up through San Luis Obispo. We just have a huge clientele base. 

Amanda Knox 

Students are an important part of your mission. How do you recruit students to the Project for the Innocent?

Adam Grant 

Loyola, it’s a Jesuit school, and we have a great social justice mission. We are one of about six or seven clinics in one building on our campus. There are dozens and dozens of students who apply to be in the clinics every year. A lot of students tell us that they came to Loyola because of the Project for the Innocent. A lot of students are like me, who just wanted to do something that was helpful. I think our major selling point is the way we help people who are so profoundly disadvantaged, people who have been in prison for 25, 35 years. And the fact that such an emphasis in our clinic is on investigation. It’s exciting to the students.

Laurie Levenson 

We draw student volunteers from across the nation. We’ve got our clinic at Loyola, but over the summer we have people in law school, people in college, and even some high school kids. They want to help people, too. They’re not doing the legal work, they’re doing the support work, but it’s educational for them to see what the justice system looks like.

Amanda Knox

You’ve been quoted before as saying there’s nothing more rewarding than giving people their freedom. That’s an important thing to remember, because a lot of this work is really hard. You often have to work for so long without guarantee that that work is going to result in someone’s freedom. How do you lighten the load for your students emotionally?

Adam Grant 

We do talk a lot about that, about secondary trauma and making sure that students and the people who work on the cases don’t feel traumatized by the facts of the cases and the predicament that our clients are in. We try to have our students meet the clients during the time that they’re in the clinic. When you meet the clients, there may be an increased sense of pressure, because the clients become a real human being, but there’s also an increased sense of the nobility of our clients, how impressive and strong and resilient our clients are, and I think it becomes more of an inspiration than it does a source of pressure. Once our students meet the clients, they really get focused on just what a privilege and opportunity it is to help these particular people. I think that helps a lot. But we also try to have fun and be a little loose, so that it’s not just grim facts all the time. But it’s tough. These are murder cases. There’s somebody who was murdered. There’s a whole family of people who have lost their loved one. And now there’s also a whole family of people who have lost the person who was wrongfully convicted for the crime. So it does get heavy and you have to make sure that there are ways to combat that.

Laurie Levenson  

One of the ways we do that is we become a family. One of the hardest things about the current times is that we’re not able to do activities we traditionally do, which is in my backyard, bring the exonerees, their families, students, lawyers, supporters, donors, and have everybody appreciate what this class is all about. I look forward to being able to do that.

Amanda Knox  

Can you tell me about this Dress As Your Favorite Defendant contest? 

Laurie Levenson

Well, I take blame for that. To break up the semester, usually around the time of Halloween or another holiday, I’ll have the Dress As Your Favorite Defendant contest. People can pick somebody out of literature or a case we’ve read. And it’s remarkable the creativity they show. Now, they don’t do it with insensitivity. As Adam pointed out, crimes are painful for many people. But there’s a little bit of recognition that we can take care of ourselves and smile a little bit as we do good work. And to be honest, it’s not actually an activity of the clinic. It’s just more an activity of that old Professor Levinson who’s been around for a long time.

Amanda Knox  

You mentioned the Obie Anthony case. I was wondering if you could maybe talk to me about the kinds of cases that you work on and what they tend to reveal about the criminal justice system.

Adam Grant 

One thing is they capture moments in time. So, for instance, if they’re 25 years ago, they’re in the middle of the height of the gang times in LA. A lot of our cases are gang cases. One of the things that we’ve had to learn over the years is the special issues that come along with gang cases. It was a time when there were three or four times as many murders each year in Los Angeles as there are now. The police felt overwhelmed and the citizens of Los Angeles were scared of gang activity. And so it was very easy to convict young men who appeared to be in gangs with almost no evidence. When you look at the evidence now, you think, “How did anybody ever get convicted on this evidence? There’s virtually nothing here.” Then you look at the ways that they were using gang expert testimony in cases when there weren’t even gang allegations just as a way to scare the jury, really. That was enough. We have so many clients who are convicted under those circumstances, where people really scratch their heads and say, “How did this guy ever get convicted?” But it was pretty common back then.

Laurie Levenson  

What we learned from these cases are all those reasons for wrongful convictions. They exist in nearly all our cases. Tunnel vision by the police, prosecutorial and police misconduct, not turning over the exculpatory evidence, false comments or confessions, ineffective assistance of counsel. The things that we hear about in the news play out case after case, and our clients generally are people without means, of a racial minority, they may not speak English. They are the forgotten citizens, and they’re treated that way. 

Amanda Knox

We’re seeing a sort of rise in public awareness of these issues. Do you guys have thoughts about the protests and social justice movements that have been progressing the past few years?

Laurie Levenson

I think the public is finally paying attention to systemic problems we’ve had. And it’s really too bad, frankly, when the public has to take to the streets. But we’ve gotten to that point where people just cannot take it anymore. And we have national leaders who seem to be very tone deaf. Now, we also know that there are many good police officers. I have former students who are former police officers, but there are also bad ones. When the bad translates into people being shot and killed, it’s a breaking point. What I wish is that we can translate the sincere emotion on the street to really constructive action, and that’s hard. 

Adam Grant  

I think it’s very encouraging that people are really passionate about this now. People are starting to discover things that we’ve seen in our cases for years and years.

Laurie Levenson 

I don’t think either one of us advocates violence from anybody out on the streets. And frankly, I don’t think most of the people on the streets do. I’m afraid that people aren’t able to focus on what is the justifiable cause, which is why wouldn’t we want to improve our institutions? Why wouldn’t we want everybody to feel more secure? Why wouldn’t we want to say that we have fairer justice? 

Amanda Knox

For so many of us, these improvements are a sign that the justice system is becoming more fair and safe, and for other people, that’s not what it feels like. Do you guys have a read on that?

Adam Grant

For a lot of people, these are all new ideas. There were intelligent people out there who thought there were no wrongful convictions 20 years ago. It’s a learning process for everybody, I guess. Everybody on this call knows what problems are in the justice system and what damage it’s capable of, but a lot of people are finally coming to the party and it’s shocking to them. We all got shocked a long time ago. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you feel like there’s a coherent message out there? How do you talk to your students about what’s going on right now?

Laurie Levenson  

Part of it is not just for us to talk to our students, but frankly, to listen to our students. I have my students fill out forms telling me about their family background, and any injustices they’ve had, whether they be victims or charged as defendants, so that it doesn’t seem so much that it’s happening to the “other.” It’s us. Justice is about how we treat each other in our community. So that’s how I try to involve my students in the discussion. I also try not to be instantly judgmental, because then people stop listening to each other. 

Adam Grant 

I sometimes tell the students, “You’re gonna see things in these cases that you probably didn’t think happen in the justice system. You’re going to see claims made by people who want to be our clients that sound like they’re suggesting that the police or the prosecution did something that’s just way beyond the pale. One of our jobs is to figure out if it actually took place based on the evidence. We have to be realistic about the fact that anything you see, there may be a police officer who would and did do it. And there may be a prosecutor who would do this. Nothing is impossible, just because it sounds like you’ve never heard it before. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean it happens all the time, but this is a huge system. It’s been going on for a long, long time and anything could have happened. Some people are capable of horrible things, and some people aren’t. You have to have an open mind about what your client is telling you, about the plausibility. Our whole job is to have as open a mind as we can to see the humanity on both sides, and to follow the evidence whether we like it or not, to wherever it takes us.”

Laurie Levenson 

I agree with that. And one of the most profound moments in our clinics is when the students talk to people who have been in the system. There is no substitute for that human dimension of hearing what somebody went through and realizing they’re not the person they had been portrayed to be.

Adam Grant 

I remember that moment in law school when Tom Goldstein came to talk to our criminal law class. It was long enough ago so that these stories weren’t in the news every day. Hearing his actual story from his mouth and his thoughts about his story and what had happened and how it happened, to people who have never been through it, it sounds like something somebody just simply could not endure. When you’re talking face-to-face with somebody who did, it starts changing your mind about a whole variety of things. It’s such a profound experience.

Amanda Knox 

I just discovered this fun fact about you, Laurie. You did the legal advising on Legally Blonde.

Laurie Levenson  

I have a dear friend, Mark Platt, who produced that film. He had the writers and Reese Witherspoon come to see what law school’s really like. It’s a lot of fun, and to the extent it inspired anybody to be interested in the law, I guess that’s a good thing. But I do want to say that it’s not all legally correct in Legally Blonde.

Amanda Knox  

Well, if people want to know the true true, they can come to your clinic.