From classroom to courtroom: Wisconsin Innocence Project students discuss what it takes to free a man from prison

Earlier this year, two Wisconsin Innocence Project students had the rare opportunity to draft a court motion that helped free a man from his 102-year prison sentence.

Joseph Frey (second from left) and his sister, with Micheal Hahn, Tricia Bushnell, Wisconsin Innocence Project Director Keith Findley, and other student attorneys.
Joseph Frey (second from left) with his sister and

Wisconsin Innocence Project students and attorneys.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up Joseph Frey’s case after learning that DNA and other evidence pointed to his innocence in a 1994 rape conviction. Students, working with attorney Tricia Bushnell, built the case that ultimately exonerated Frey, while pointing to another perpetrator.

Students Micheal Hahn and Matt Gardner drafted and filed the motion seeking the additional DNA testing. Hahn and Bushnell presented the new evidence at a hearing in May, when the judge overturned Frey’s conviction. The state later dismissed the charges, and Frey was released from prison in July.

We talked to Gardner and Hahn, now third-year law students at UW Law School, to learn more about their work on the case.

First of all, Mike, how did it feel to argue the motion that helped free Joseph Frey after he’d served 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit?

HAHN: Fantastic, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was definitely nerve-racking being in court for the first time, but it was also exhilarating. I only wish that the hearing could have been a little earlier so Matt could have been there, too.

GARDNER: Unfortunately, I did miss the hearing, and I missed seeing Mr. Frey walk out a free man. I had the opportunity to argue in court on another case, so I know what Mike was going through at the time. Very few attorneys, let alone law students, get the opportunity to argue in court to prove someone’s innocence.

HAHN: That was the best part without a doubt — seeing the relief and gratitude on Mr. Frey's face once it started to sink in that his persistence in pursuing his innocence finally paid off. That is something I will never forget.

Can you describe the duties that were assigned to you for this case?

Michael Hahn
Micheal Hahn

HAHN: When we got the case, we were in the drafting phase of the DNA-testing motion so we would alternate drafts and revisions, and we would each work on different portions.

GARDNER: Before we felt comfortable filing the motion, we had a lot of work to do, which involved several brainstorming and strategy sessions. We also focused on working with the district attorney’s office in an effort to reach an agreement about the DNA testing.

HAHN: As the hearing got closer, we worked with Supervising Attorney Tricia Bushnell on what we could expect and what we would need to make sure there were no surprises. At the hearing, it was important that we got the reports on the DNA testing and the subsequent investigation of the real perpetrator on the record.

Was it difficult drafting the motion together?

GARDNER: Not at all. Mike was the team leader. He worked hard and took the lead on the case from the beginning.

HAHN: Matt's a great partner and really dedicated to his work. I think we worked well together because our writing styles and what we find persuasive are pretty compatible. But all of the students on Mr. Frey’s case worked together and shared ideas and constructive criticism really well. I think that collaborative atmosphere makes all the difference in the quality of our work and the quality of our experiences in the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

What hurdles did you encounter along the way?

GARDNER: There were plenty of hurdles, not the least of which was writing the motion to get Mr. Frey back in court. Getting a client back into court on a post-conviction motion is incredibly difficult.

HAHN: In my mind, the biggest hurdles weren’t the ones we faced in getting the conviction vacated, it was the hurdles Mr. Frey would face after he was out and able to have his freedom again. Under normal circumstances, the Department of Corrections has time to set up enrollment in various programs and services available to ensure that the inmates do not end up on the street after being released. Mr. Frey was released immediately, and the DOC had no time or ability to help set him up afterward.

How did your classroom and clinic experiences prepare you for your work on the case?

Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner

HAHN: I was fortunate enough to take Criminal Procedure with Professor Byron Lichstein, and that class definitely gave me a better understanding of the criminal justice system. The information we got on the causes of wrongful convictions and on the case law governing post-conviction procedures was invaluable.

GARDNER: Faculty at the Wisconsin Innocence Project do a great job of preparing students for casework, too. As it relates to Mr. Frey’s case specifically, the classes and case staffings we had regarding DNA testing were incredibly helpful.

What is the most important thing you learned from the experience?

GARDNER: Sometimes the truth can be stranger than fiction. As an advocate, it is so important to remember that, and to keep an open mind while working with your clients.

HAHN: That’s right. Never let a person's prior actions prejudice how you view them. It sounds simple, but it's a lot harder in practice, and it’s something we all need to be better about.

GARDNER: On the larger scale, this experience and the Wisconsin Innocence Project as a whole changed my entire perspective on my career. Even if I never practice criminal defense again, I will always appreciate the lessons I learned.

What happens next?

HAHN: Current students are moving forward to make sure that Mr. Frey gets the assistance and compensation to which he's entitled. We will certainly help them with anything that they might need from us, but Mr. Frey is in good hands.

Tricia Bushnell, Mike Hahn and Matt Gardner also wanted to acknowledge all the students who worked with them to exonerate Joseph Frey: Samantha Wood, Scott Zehr, Lauren Devine, Jaclyn Schwartz and Paisley Morris.

Submitted by Tammy Kempfert and Kelsey Gusho on February 25, 2015

This article appears in the categories: Frank J. Remington Center, Wisconsin Innocence Project, Articles

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