Innocence Clinic Students Fight to Overturn ‘02 Conviction and Free Client

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Don Guerazzi, JD '14, Jade Valdes, JD '16, Craig Trocino, Claudia Meijides, JD ’16

Clothed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit, Jerome Hill hobbled into a Pensacola courtroom on March 30. The heavy shackles at his waist and ankles – mandated by the Florida Department of Corrections – were in contrast to his slight frame.

Hill and members of his legal team were in Pensacola arguing that his 2002 conviction for armed burglary should be overturned. Third-year students from Miami Law’s Innocence Clinic, Jade Valdes and Claudia Meijides, along with Clinic Director, Craig Trocino, and former clinic student and now practicing attorney Don Guerrazzi, J.D. '14, appeared on Hill’s behalf.

“The Innocence Clinic is one of the few opportunities for a law student to learn the meaning of ‘zealous advocacy,'" said Guerrazzi. “I learned what it means to be wholly responsible for a client in need." Guerrazzi has stuck with Hill's case since his 2L year at Miami Law.

Hill’s case bore the hallmark signs of a wrongful conviction: suggestive eyewitness identification and poor lawyering from defense counsel, according to Guerrazzi.

“It was almost immediately apparent that his case was the result of dramatic deficiencies in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Although graduated and working for a law firm, Guerrazzi has remained committed to the Innocence Clinic and his former clients.

“After three years of fighting to prove his innocence, it was incredibly rewarding to be able to stand side by side with our client and argue our case to the very same judge who sentenced Jerome to life without parole,” Guerrazzi said. “I am very grateful to the Innocence Clinic for allowing me to be a part of this hearing and to continue fighting for our client's innocence.”
 
Hill has always maintained he is guiltless of the crime for which he was convicted when he was 22 years old. Sentenced to life in prison, he contacted the Miami Law Innocence Clinic for assistance. Through the clinic’s investigation, it was determined that his appointed defense lawyer failed to challenge eyewitness identifications and also failed to call three alibi witnesses on Hill’s behalf.

At the hearing, Hill’s former defense lawyer admitted he made mistakes by not challenging the identifications and failing to point out to the jury serious inconsistencies in the witnesses’ statements.

“Along my journey with Mr. Hill's case I learned that passion, dedication, and conviction come a long way when all odds are stacked against you," Meijides said. "I am truly thankful I was given the opportunity to speak up against injustice. I feel I am lucky. I am truly honored to have had this amazing experience.”

“During this experience, I realized how important our work is to our clients," Valdes said. "Mr. Hill came into court with a so much hope on his face that there may be more to his life than spending the rest of his life in jail."  

"Everyone involved in this case did a terrific job under difficult circumstances,” said Trocino. "It’s one thing to do a hearing across town; it’s another experience altogether having to conduct a hearing across the state but everyone pitched in a did a great job."

The clinic is now awaiting a ruling from the judge in Hill’s case.

“Knowing that I played a small role in giving him that hope is the best part of my law school experience," Valdes said. "Interning with the Innocence Clinic has given me an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than my grades, student organizations, or myself.”