This story originally accompanied the feature “Reinventing the clerkship: Model expanding the traditional judicial clerkship could be next trend.“
Erin Moriarty ’77 was inspired by a story. She was reading SideBar, the monthly e-newsletter for alumni at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and saw an article about Kelly Schneider ’96 and her work in creating the Wrongful Conviction Project at the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.
It was the state’s first program accepting cases of convicted criminals who say they’re innocent but lack the DNA evidence to prove it. While a noble cause, the project lacked monetary support. Schneider and her colleagues had hoped to receive a grant from the Department of Justice, but it fell through. Schneider moved forward anyway.
“I loved reading about Kelly because I do as many wrongfully accused stories I can get my hands on for work,” said Moriarty, a CBS News reporter and 48 Hours correspondent.
Among the pieces Moriarty’s brought before a national audience was the case of the West Memphis Three, a story she covered for four years. A trio of teenagers were tried and convicted of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark. during the 1990s despite lack of any physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. Forensic evidence uncovered in 2007 could not be attributed to the three defendants, eventually leading to their release. The case attracted the attention of national media and celebrities, from actor Johnny Depp to grunge rock icon Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
“There are far more cases where you’re not going to get the press and celebrities involved. I thought if I really believed strongly in this work, I better put my money where my mouth was,” Moriarty said.
She met with Dean Alan C. Michaels to see if there was a seminar or clinic that could be held with current students who could assist Schneider. Michaels had a better idea: Why not create a fellowship to fund a Moritz graduate’s full-time attention to the work? Moriarty made a pledge to fund a fellow for at least the first three years of the project and tried to drum up support from other alumni.
“I committed to this before we took pay cuts at CBS. But it should be a sacrifice. It should be hard,” Moriarty said. “What I didn’t realize was it would be harder to get my fellow alums involved. Maybe people don’t realize how frequently this happens, but we keep finding it’s more and more.”
Moriarty has taken a personal interest in the fellows and their work. In a conversation from her office in New York City, she talked about the cases being pursued and the difficulty investigators have in finding new evidence when DNA doesn’t exist.
As a woman in television journalism, Moriarty says she has lasted longer than most of her peers because of her Moritz education. She credits Ohio State for affording her the “perfect job,” covering stories tangled with legal complexities.
“I wanted to give back in an area that has given so much to me. Maybe someone would get out of prison for it, and maybe young grads would get jobs. Who could argue with that?” she said. Moriarty hopes the Wrongful Conviction Project lasts more than three years, and she’s spreading the word about it to former classmates and friends whenever possible. “I’m scared it won’t go on after this, and it would be really great if more people stepped up.”