CFJC lawyers and students address unjust incarceration and punishment through postconviction challenges of the extreme sentencing of youth and young people that fail to account for their youth and trauma. A student team of Kathleen Kennedy, Emma Costello, Anna Hile, Lauren Stapleton, Madeline Yzurdiaga,and Ellen Baron joined attorneys and staff at the CFJC and the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) to win the freedom of Melissa G., after she served more than 27 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. As a 17-year-old teen mother of two, Melissa was arrested and wrongfully convicted of her toddler’s death and sentenced to 80 years in prison. After years of unsuccess challenging Melissa’s guilt, clinic students and attorneys at the CFJC joined a legal team at the CWC to attack Melissa’s sentence as disproportionate in light of her youth and her status as a domestic violence survivor.
Clinic students researched and drafted a petition requesting relief from Melissa’s sentence by detailing the domestic abuse she suffered and highlighting the changes in the law and scientific findings on the effects of youth and domestic abuse on a person’s culpability. Students also interviewed Melissa’s family and friends and helped prepare mitigation materials, a reentry plan, and a sentencing memorandum. Through these efforts, Melissa received a new sentence of time served and on August 24, 2022, she walked out of prison to reunite with her surviving daughter.