Exoneration Justice Clinic receives $3 million grant to defend Mexican nationals in US criminal cases

Author: Denise Wager

ND Experts

Jimmy Gurulé

Jimmy Gurulé

Notre Dame Law School

Left to right: Elvia Yolanda Martínez Cosío, Vanessa Calva Ruiz, Jimmy Gurulé, Roberto Velasco Álvarez, and Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil after the signing of the letter of intent.
Left to right: Elvia Yolanda Martínez Cosío, Vanessa Calva Ruiz, Jimmy Gurulé, Roberto Velasco Álvarez and Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil after the signing of the letter of intent.

Notre Dame Law School’s Exoneration Justice Clinic has been awarded a $3 million grant from Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to administer a program for the defense of Mexican nationals in criminal matters in the United States. This grant is the largest ever received by a Notre Dame Law School clinic, and it will greatly enhance the Exoneration Justice Clinic’s ability to support clients and provide valuable learning opportunities for students.

The Exoneration Justice Clinic was selected for the award following a national search of wrongful-conviction clinics. The award will establish the Program for the Defense of Mexican Nationals in Criminal Matters, or PDM.

Vanessa Calva Ruiz, director general of consular protection and strategic planning; Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil, general consul of Mexico in Chicago; and Professor Jimmy Gurulé, founder and faculty director of the Exoneration Justice Clinic, signed a letter of intent at a formal ceremony on Saturday (Sept. 30) at the Mexican Consulate Office in Chicago.

Esteban Moctezuma, Mexican ambassador to the United States; Roberto Velasco Álvarez, chief officer for the North America Unit; Elvia Yolanda Martínez Cosío, member of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies; and Jesús Seade, undersecretary for North America, also participated in the announcement.

G. Marcus Cole, the Joseph A. Matson Dean of Notre Dame Law School, said, “We are honored to receive this grant for the Exoneration Justice Clinic. It speaks to our commitment to justice and recognizes the hard work and dedication of the EJC’s faculty, staff and students. With this grant, we will expand our ability to assist individuals who have suffered wrongful convictions.”

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Left to right: Elvia Yolanda Martínez Cosío, Vanessa Calva Ruiz, Jimmy Gurulé, Roberto Velasco Álvarez and Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil sign the letter of intent.

At the announcement ceremony, Gurulé said, “The Exoneration Justice Clinic will be working in close collaboration with the 53 Mexican Consulate offices across the country to overturn the wrongful convictions of Mexican nationals in the United States. At the same time, the PDM will provide Notre Dame law students an invaluable opportunity to participate in litigating wrongful conviction cases in the pursuit of justice.”

Gurulé said that wrongful convictions are of great concern in the U.S., and that Mexican nationals are particularly vulnerable. They often do not speak English and do not understand the criminal justice system and their constitutional rights. This can lead to them being pressured or coerced into making false confessions or other incriminating statements.

The Mexican government recognized this problem and sought an innocence clinic to provide legal representation to Mexican nationals who have been wrongfully convicted in the U.S.

This three-year pilot program will consist of two components. First, the Exoneration Justice Clinic will review claims of actual innocence. These cases will be referred from Mexican consulate offices throughout the U.S. They will first go through an initial screening process and then will be sent to the Exoneration Justice Clinic to evaluate the case for legal representation.

The second component of the project will include pre-trial legal assistance. This will provide a new opportunity for Notre Dame law students to assist in pretrial proceedings, plea bargaining and trial litigation of serious felony cases under a licensed attorney.

“If you can do a thorough investigation upfront, you can prevent people from being wrongfully convicted in the first place,” Gurulé said. “This is a very exciting new dimension of the work that the Exoneration Justice Clinic is able to do.”

The grant funding will also help increase the size of the Exoneration Justice Clinic. Expansion plans include hiring two staff lawyers — one to work on post-conviction cases and one to work on pre-trial cases — along with an investigator and a legal assistant.

“These resources will allow us to double the capacity of the EJC and make a very significant impact both in preventing and overturning wrongful convictions,” Gurulé said.

The Exoneration Justice Clinic currently works on innocence cases primarily in Indiana. With the grant the clinic will expand its reach across the country. It plans to retain local, private counsel in the cities where the cases will be tried. Clinic staff lawyers and law students will work together as co-counsel on these cases.

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Jimmy Gurulé speaks to Vanessa Calva Ruiz after the announcement.

One of the most beneficial aspects of this grant to the Law School is that it will significantly increase the number of students who will receive real-world lawyering experience. More students will have the opportunity to represent clients who were wrongfully convicted or who are at risk of being wrongfully convicted.

“This grant will further provide our students with an opportunity to make a positive impact on reforming the criminal justice system and correcting the miscarriage of justice,” Gurulé said. “This is very exciting and is consistent with Notre Dame’s mission to be a force for good.”

The Exoneration Justice Clinic, which launched in fall 2020, is committed to investigating, litigating and overturning wrongful convictions. The clinic provides students with real-world opportunities to represent clients who have been wrongfully convicted.

In July 2021, the clinic marked its first exoneration when a judge approved the Elkhart County prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the murder charge against Andrew Royer, an Exoneration Justice Clinic client who was wrongfully convicted of a 2002 murder in Elkhart, Indiana.

Read more at exoneration.nd.edu.

Originally published by Denise Wager at law.nd.edu on Oct. 2.