Can Paralegals Help Overturn Wrongful Convictions?

Can paralegals help gain freedom for prisoners who were wrongly convicted of a crime? There is a lot of news coverage today about wrongful convictions and even a new TV drama on the subject; people are inspired to become part of the effort, but few want to spend the time, effort and money to become attorneys. Paralegal education, however, can be completed in a couple of years. Can paralegals have careers helping win release for people who have been sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit? Probably, the best answer to that question lies in the word “help.”

Related resource: Top 10 Online Paralegal Degree Programs

What Paralegals Can’t Do

It would be easy to get carried away with the dramatics of a television show and romanticize the role of a paralegal in the effort. Paralegals cannot represent a client in court. They cannot give legal advice. This was easier a few years ago when most paralegals did not even come in contact with clients. Now, however, they sometimes conduct client interviews and they have to be mindful of the injunction that they cannot represent themselves as lawyers. It is against the law for a paralegal to operate an office or a practice soliciting clients, offering legal direction. All of that requires being a licensed attorney.

What They Can Do

Paralegals are not secretaries. According to the American Bar Association, the term “paralegal” is synonymous with “legal assistant.” Paralegals act as administrative assistants to attorneys, and while some paralegals get on-the-job training, most have an associate degree if not a bachelor’s degree. Paralegals can be certified and are regulated by the American Bar Association. They can do anything a lawyer would otherwise do, except things specifically prohibited by law. They prepare court documents, proofread legal briefs, copy and collate reports, catalog documents and evidence and do online research. They also interview witnesses and serve as liaisons with clients. In short, paralegals do a lot of “prep” work and legwork that an attorney would otherwise have to do, and that allows the attorney to turn his or her attention to more tasking problems.

The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a “not-for-profit organization that works to exonerate innocent prisoners through post-conviction DNA testing and develop and implement policy changes to prevent wrongful conviction and otherwise reform the criminal justice system.” The project has been around since 1992 and has been successful in reversing many wrongful convictions. Their website claims more than 350 exonerations. Why is it germane to a discussion about paralegal roles? A recent post on the Innocence Project website advertises for paralegals to work in the organization. The duties and responsibilities noted are similar to those listed by the ABA. The paralegals serve as liaisons with incarcerated prisoners and their families, DNA testing laboratories and prisons, prepare court documents, perform online research and other duties that help the attorneys do their jobs. While they may not be the voice that tells the judge in a case about DNA that didn’t match, they could be the person that discovered the evidence leading to the exoneration.

Paralegals play a huge roll in the legal system. Without their help, the slow-turning wheel of justice might come to a near-stop. So, in answer to the question of whether a paralegal can help overturn wrongful convictions, the answer is that they play a big part in the exonerations of many innocent people.