“Can we work on actual cases?”
Mackenzie King wanted to design a project that critically examined the criminal justice system in the US. Through a colleague, she got connected to the California Innocence Project (CIP), an organization that takes on cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners. Based on past experiences with community partners, Mackenzie was worried that they might not “trust the students to do anything meaningful.” So she put her cards on the table, asking from the outset, “Can we work on actual cases? To my astonishment, my daily astonishment, they said yes and continue to say yes.” Part of the reason, Mackenzie explains, is that CIP gets thousands of requests from incarcerated individuals every year, and relies on pro-bono lawyers or law school interns to screen them. They need the help.
The project engages groups of students in reading and analyzing actual clients’ case files (one case per group), and coming up with a recommendation to CIP about whether they should take on the case or not, based on the possibility of the clients’ innocence, and the availability of evidence that could prove it. Each case file includes many documents, including legal and technical language with which the students are unfamiliar. After analyzing the case files, students created a memo detailing their recommendations, and presented to CIP lawyers and law students. (This product and process is modeled on what CIP asks of its volunteer lawyers and law school interns.)
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To scaffold the challenge of close technical reading, Mackenzie first assigned students an autopsy report to read, minus the final cause of death. Their job was to read this very technical document, looking up any terms they did not understand, and see if their conclusion matched that of the medical examiner.
Then the class worked through one CIP client’s file as a whole group, exposing the students for the first time to the various possible documents in such a file — appeal letters, summary of court testimony, police reports — and the kind of vocabulary and close reading that would be required.
Finally the students were assigned their own case. Mackenzie used a randomizer to create groups initially, and then fine tuned the groups to balance them based on reading levels, special needs, and group dynamics. Students read closely and summarized all of their case documents. Once they came to a recommendation, they worked on multiple drafts of their final memo. Students practiced their presentations in front of other student groups, which enabled them to anticipate questions and weaknesses in their argument.
At the same time, students read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. These texts provided students with a background on the inequitable history of the criminal justice system in the U.S., as well as an emotional connection with the wrongfully convicted persons featured in these books.
According to Mackenzie, this project “can be very tough for a struggling reader.” But the real world nature of it motivated them to persevere. Due to the technical nature of the reading, all students were chunking documents into small parts and reading very closely, relying on group conversations, and looking up words to help them understand. Whenever possible Mackenzie supported students in visualizing events and information from the documents, such as creating relationship and family trees, timelines, mapping out crime scenes, and utilizing Google maps.
The memo to CIP and the presentation to staff and lawyers comprised the most authentic form of assessment possible. A momentous decision — whether or not their case would be taken on — depended upon the quality of students’ thinking, writing, and presentation. Nothing could be more motivating. As one student remarked, “What I will remember the most about XONR8 is that we had the ability to change people’s lives.”
The collaboration with the California Innocence Project has grown. In subsequent years, Mackenzie has added new elements to the project, and other HTH teachers have initiated similar projects with their students.