Hamline University

Students work to raise awareness about wrongful convictions

First-year students learned first-hand about the flaws in the American justice system and the toll it can take on people’s lives. Sociology professor Melissa Embser-Herbert’s first-year seminar, Justice Denied: Wrongful Convictions in the United States, explored the many complicated factors that can lead to innocent people being convicted of very serious crimes. 

“The aim was for students to take away an understanding of the degree to which the system can fail people,” Embser-Herbert said.

First-year seminars were created to provide incoming students with an introduction to Hamline and a sense of community by placing them in small classes with other first-year students. The classes are rooted in the liberal arts and are truly interdisciplinary, covering topics across a variety of academic areas; from physics and health sciences, to literature and psychology. Students in Embser-Herbert’s class not only studied their topic on an academic level, they also worked to raise awareness of the issue around the Hamline community.

“I love it when I have a class where I can think of projects students can actually get out there and take on,” stated Embser-Herbert.

In October, the students, along with those in FYSems focusing on issues in legal studies and forensic science, had the opportunity to attend a benefit for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a group that is dedicated to help exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted. The keynote speaker was Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three. Echols was sentenced to death after he and two others were convicted of triple murder. After nearly 20 years in prison, the men were released following the discovery and analysis of new forensic evidence. The weekend following the benefit, Embser-Herbert’s students hosted a reception at Ginkgo Coffeehouse where the art of a wrongfully convicted man with whom Embser-Herbert was working was exhibited.

Toward the end of the semester, Embser-Herbert’s class, with the guidance of campus colleague Greg Steinke, worked together to create a public service announcement for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. The students did everything from researching, to conducting interviews, to filming and editing the video. Their work is now featured on the Innocence Project’s website and Vimeo

“I hope the experience inspired the students to want to take action and make a difference,” Embser-Herbert said. “Nothing in the American legal system occurs in a vacuum and the more students can understand that going forward, the better.”

Embser-Herbert’s passion to help exonerate those who have been convicted of crimes without proper evidence continues beyond Hamline. Thanks in large part to Embser-Herbert's work on the case, Michael Ustaszewski, who was imprisoned for a crime he says he didn't commit, was granted parole after 35 years. You can read more about this case in the Toledo Blade newspaper.