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Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic Files Petition with High Court Over ''Norfolk Four'' Case

A notorious case of injustice involving a former Navy sailor wrongly convicted of rape could be headed to the nation’s highest court after members of Yale Law School’s Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic recently filed a petition seeking to allow the man to clear his name.

Eric Wilson, a member of a group of ex-sailors known as the “Norfolk Four,” served more than seven years in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction for the rape of a woman in Norfolk, Virginia in 1997. He contends that he was convicted as a result of a coerced and false confession procured by a corrupt police detective (who is now in federal prison for corruption), and despite DNA evidence that conclusively exonerates him and shows that the rape was perpetrated by another man. Wilson remains subject to mandatory sex-offender registration and reporting laws despite never having committed the crime.

“This is a case about a man who is innocent, as the evidence overwhelmingly shows,” stated Daniel Schuker ’13, “and about the question whether a court system that wrongly convicted him owes him a chance to show that he was denied justice.”

The petition in the case of Wilson v. Flaherty, contends that Wilson should be permitted to seek habeas corpus relief to challenge his conviction and that, despite the fact that he is no longer in prison, he is still in “custody” as the habeas corpus statute requires because he is subject to onerous mandatory lifetime sex offender registration and reporting conditions. While his “custody” claim was rejected by a federal appeals court last year, clinic members write that the Supreme Court's "intervention is urgently needed to correct a manifest and deeply disturbing miscarriage of justice."

“We hope that the Court will understand that, especially for an innocent man, the myriad restrictions of lifetime sex offender status are tantamount to many other non-prison restrictions that the Court has acknowledged to be ‘custody,’” stated Rachel Shalev ’14.

The petition filed before the U.S. Supreme Court was prepared by a team of instructors and students of the Clinic including Visiting Lecturer in Law Charles A. Rothfeld, Visiting Professor of Law Jeffrey A. Meyer ’89 and students Bridget Fahey ‘14, Erin Miller ’13, Rachel Shalev ’14, and Daniel Schuker ’13. The Supreme Court Clinic allows students to work on real-life public interest cases pending before the Court. Students work with instructors to draft petitions for writs of certiorari, write merits briefs in granted cases, and represent amici curiae in more than a dozen cases each year.

“It’s been an honor to help represent such a worthy client before the Court,” stated Bridget Fahey ’14.

While members of the clinic wait to see if their case will be heard, they continue to raise awareness of wrongful convictions that happen across the country. On Feb. 13, 2013, the clinic hosted a forum entitled "Convicting the Innocent: False Confessions & Prosecutorial Error," which was attended by Mr. Wilson and his habeas corpus attorney Stephen Northup of Troutman Sander LLP in Richmond, Virginia. The forum also featured David Loftis, managing attorney for the Innocence Project in New York and Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University who is a leading authority on the subject of coercive interrogation techniques.

“False confessions are a continuing challenge for our criminal justice system,” noted Erin Miller ‘14. "We tried through this forum and Eric Wilson’s compelling story to help people understand the legal and psychological dynamics that can lead some people to confess under police pressure to crimes that they simply did not commit.”