Notre Dame Law School Exoneration Justice Clinic

Law School Religious Liberty Inititative 30

Andrew Royer spent 16 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, but in July, Notre Dame’s Exoneration Justice Clinic got his conviction overturned. Royer is now free.

Royer is the clinic’s first client to be exonerated. Since 2017, Law School faculty and students have worked to overturn Royer’s 2002 conviction in the strangling of an elderly woman who lived in his apartment building. Royer always maintained his innocence, despite a confession that had been proven as coerced, illegal, and inadmissible. In July, Royer’s murder charge was dismissed and in August his name was added to the National Registry of Exonerations.

“Andy would not be free, and we would not be here, but for the tireless work of Notre Dame law students, our investigator, and attorneys who were determined to correct the ultimate miscarriage of justice—the wrongful conviction of an innocent person,” said Elliot Slosar, an adjunct professor at Notre Dame and a staff attorney with the Exoneration Project in Chicago.

Notre Dame’s Exoneration Justice Clinic launched in the fall of 2020, building upon its predecessors, the Wrongful Conviction Externship and the volunteer Notre Dame Exoneration Project. Since expanding, it is now an operational law firm within the Law School, said Professor Jimmy Gurulé, the clinic director and a former federal prosecutor, who works alongside a fulltime staff lawyer, a legal fellow, a legal assistant, and, soon, a full-time investigator.

But the heart of the project is the 12 enrolled law students who receive academic credit for attending weekly courses focused on causes of wrongful convictions, relevant laws, and pertinent applications, all taught by Gurulé, and for their legal work on ongoing wrongful conviction cases.

The students get valuable lawyering experience as they visit the client in prison, interview prospective witnesses, and make court appearances. The students are currently working on 14 cases, with new cases being rotated in as availability and resources become available. A boom in volunteer law students—25 this year— along with a few undergraduates, has allowed them to expand their caseload, and to provide exonerated clients access to social support services to help them reintegrate into society.

“Notre Dame Law School stresses the importance of our students taking their legal education and using it to be a force for good, and to address the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of society, and to use their legal training to pursue social justice,” Gurulé said. “For me, I can’t think of a greater injustice than the state depriving someone of their liberty for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Though the clinic is still in its infancy, Gurulé has ambitious aspirations. He would like to make the program the national gold standard for exoneration projects and to see annual victories for the clients.

“It shows that a few Notre Dame lawyers with passion, hard work, and desire can make a difference,” he said.