SEATTLE - University of Washington School of Law student Jacob Dishion faced off against veteran attorneys for the State of Washington and won an important appellate court victory for the rights of convicted felons seeking DNA testing to prove their innocence.
Dishion, 29, working with fellow law students and faculty at UW Law’s Innocence Project Northwest Clinic (IPNW), convinced the state Court of Appeals in Seattle to rule unanimously last month that felons serving part of their sentence in the community are eligible for publicly funded DNA testing if they file a qualifying claim that they are innocent. The case is State v. Slattum. The opinion was issued Feb. 19 and the state has 30 days to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The state had argued that only felons actually in jail or prison qualify for such testing under a 2001 state law, RCW 10.73.170, which allows felons “currently… serving a term of imprisonment” to petition for post-conviction DNA testing.
This was the first time IPNW won an appellate case with a law student presenting the oral argument. Dishion, a third-year student, worked closely in preparing the oral argument with Kelly Paradis, his clinic partner, Anna Tolin, Deputy Director of IPNW, and other law students in the program.
“It was a huge thrill to find out that all the work we put into it translated a positive result,” says Dishion, a native of Eugene, Oregon, who came to UW Law hoping to participate in the IPNW Clinic.
The state contended that if felons serving time in the community -- on highly restricted “community custody – were allowed to petition for DNA testing, the state crime lab would be swamped and state costs would soar because those convicts outnumber convicts in prison and jail by about 50 percent. Currently, there are about 1,000 cases pending statewide for DNA testing at any given time, of which less than 1 percent involve prisoners seeking post-conviction testing.
But a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, Division One -- which covers King, Snohomish, and four other counties -- ruled in IPNW’s favor. The central issue was whether the statutory language referring to “imprisonment” includes sentences served under community custody. The court held that the word imprisonment is ambiguous, and therefore it was required under the “rule of lenity” to resolve an ambiguity in criminal law in favor of the defendant, granting him the right to petition for DNA testing.
This is the first appellate ruling on this issue in Washington, establishing a precedent for other state courts.
“It’s a big victory that expands the right of access to DNA testing for individuals we represent in the future,” says UW Law Professor Jacqueline McMurtrie, who directs the law school’s IPNW, which she founded in 1997.
The judges fired nonstop, tough questions at both Dishion and the attorney for the state during the 20-minute arguments on Jan. 22. But Dishion said he was ready for grilling, having spent weeks preparing with the help of Paradis, Tolin and the clinic’s other law students, including holding moot court sessions.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous going into it,” he says. “There were a couple of curveball questions but overall the questions were what we had prepared for and were ready to answer.”
Dishion handled himself so well that Judge C. Kenneth Grosse complimented him and his opponent at the end of the arguments. “That’s really unusual,” McMurtrie said. “We were all very impressed by Jacob’s presence and skill.”
UW Law students in the IPNW Clinic previously had won at the trial level in the Slattum case. Dylan Tessier '12 handled oral arguments, assisted by her clinic partners M Dunning '12 and Amanda Mobrand '12, who wrote the winning motion.
The IPNW Clinic represents indigent people in Washington who are serving long prison terms, claim their innocence, and no longer have a right to court-appointed counsel. Last December, the clinic’s staff attorneys and law students succeeded in overturning the conviction of a Spokane-area man by presenting evidence raising doubts about the original jury verdict. In 2010, IPNW won the exonerations of three men based on newly discovered DNA evidence.
IPNW also trains UW Law students in legislative and public policy advocacy on wrongful conviction issues. It’s currently working on state legislation that would require the state to pay wrongfully convicted people $50,000 in compensation for each year served, and $100,000 for each year served on death row.