The Mississippi Innocence Project (MIP), a legal clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law, celebrated recently when the 44-year sentences of client Leigh Stubbs and co-defendant Tami Vance were overturned. The two women were wrongly convicted of aggravated assault and drug possession nearly 11 years ago in Lincoln County.
Merrida Coxwell of Coxwell and Associates in Jackson represented Vance.
“I was shocked, speechless,” Stubbs said. “It was an unreal feeling.”
MIP began work on behalf of Stubbs in 2008 with the assistance of second and third-year UM law students in the clinic. Staff members Valena Beety, Will McIntosh, Carol Mockbee and Tucker Carrington, director of the Project, supervised.
“If it wasn’t for Tucker, Valena, Will and the [MIP] staff, I’d still be in prison today,” Stubbs said. “They believed in me. I appreciate every moment of work they put in to help me.”
Part of the MIP’s mission is to educate UM law students in practical lawyering skills while providing quality legal representation to its clients.
Former students Jessica Catchings, Stephen Huwe, Bette Bradley, Price Donahoo, Forrest Jenkins, Philip Levy and Tiffany Speegle worked on the case as well as current students Cody Roebuck and Alex Lowman.
“It impressed me that the students were so supportive,” Stubbs said. “They knew everything about us.”
Students researched a number of key issues including exculpatory evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel and forensic fraud. Some students worked on drafts of the initial post-conviction relief motion filed in the MS Supreme Court.
“I came to Ole Miss Law because I wanted to work with the Mississippi Innocence Project,” said Catchings, who graduated in May.
“Being able to work with the MIP and knowing I played a small part in helping these women reclaim their lives reminds me of why I wanted to go to law school in the first place.”
According to Beety, lead attorney on the case and current director of the West Virginia Innocence Project, students also learned about legal issues while getting to know Stubbs and Vance.
“It allowed them to put a face to the otherwise abstract cause of wrongful conviction,” Beety said.
Vance and Stubbs’ original trial hinged on testimony from Dr. Michael West, a dentist from Hattiesburg who claimed he could match bite marks on the victim’s body to the women as well as enhance video footage linking them to the crime.
FBI scrutiny of the footage at this February’s trial, however, contradicted West’s previous testimony. West has also since questioned the validity of his own bite mark method.
“This case is particularly important as MIP continues to challenge forensic fraud in Mississippi,” Beety said.
“While bite mark evidence was supported by the courts at the time of Stubbs’ and Vance’s convictions, this evidence is no longer scientifically recognized as reliable – even by individuals who themselves previously testified to bite mark findings.”
While nearly 300 wrongfully convicted individuals have been freed through the Innocence Project in New York and the Innocence Network, the Stubbs and Vance case is the first for the MIP and its students to solely litigate from inception to the prisoners’ release from prison.
In addition, the MIP and student attorneys provided counsel in the 2008 exonerations of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two Noxubee county men who spent more than thirty years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
For more on the MIP and the Stubbs and Vance case:
For more on the MIP and the Brooks and Brewer case:
View the award-winning documentary, Mississippi Innocence.