Overview of Curriculum
There are two major strands to this unit. The first strand walks students through what we have labeled the three stages of wrongful conviction: Lives Taken, Life on the Inside, and Life on the Other Side. The second strand is a case study of Ricky Smith, a hypothetical man imprisoned for a crime he allegedly did not commit. The two strands are complementary and can be taught together, but a teacher with limited time would likely want to focus on the three stages progression as it can be difficult to capture the bigger picture solely through Ricky’s story. At the same time, we have deliberately designed the three stages so that most lessons are freestanding and teachers can pick and choose which lessons to teach depending on interest and available time. Moreover, the lessons themselves are flexible and can be shortened or expanded to accommodate class interest and needs.
The Three Stages
This strand of our unit is divided into three stages corresponding to the three major stages in an innocent person’s journey from wrongful conviction to jail to release. In the first stage, Lives Taken, we look at the loss of the victim’s life (many of the cases we study involve the crime of murder) and the convicted person’s loss of freedom. We then examine each of the six reasons why innocent people get wrongfully convicted-eyewitness misidentification, police or prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, snitch testimony, bad science, and inadequate defense counsel. We also work with the students to develop best practices and protocols designed to reduce the opportunities for future wrongful convictions and to illustrate good lawyering and investigative practices.
In the second stage of this unit, Life on the Inside, we look at what life is like behind bars. This is also where we learn about the prisoner’s parole dilemma and how an innocent person contacts the Innocence Project, goes about the process of appealing his/her conviction and getting exonerated, pardoned, or otherwise released. In the third, and final stage, Life on the Other Side, we examine what life is like once the wrongfully convicted individual leaves jail. Will s/he receive a monetary award and an expunged record? How states seek to remedy a wrongful conviction? What else can be done?
The second strand of our unit centers on the fictional story of Ricky Smith, a high school student arrested and convicted of a murder he argues he did not commit. Now, years later, Ricky is in jail and is writing to the high school students to ask them to help him prove his innocence. Drawing on actual case files and case protocols, we have created a series of documents that will enable students to investigate Ricky’s case and draft a petition for Ricky’s release from jail.
Just like actual Innocence Project staffers, the students begin by analyzing letters from different inmates requesting help and learn how Ricky’s case is the only one to satisfy the required criteria. Students then ask Ricky for all the details of his story and learn about all the characters involved in Ricky’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction. As the students follow up with each character (teachers can set up free email accounts for each character), that character will share relevant documents with the students, including lie detector results, trial testimony, letters of recantation, police reports, DNA reports, and polygraph reports. The culminating activity requires students to collectively draft an exoneration petition setting forth all the reasons why Ricky was wrongfully convicted and asking the court to free Ricky. Teachers can also consider conducting a mock hearing to allow students to present their arguments to the court.