West Virginia Record

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Innocence Project law clinic helps free Tyler County man


By Kyla Asbury | Aug 30, 2018


MORGANTOWN — The Innocence Project law clinic with West Virginia University College of Law recently helped free a client who had been convicted of a crime he did not commit.

The clinic helped get the conviction of Christopher Dodrill vacated by Tyler Circuit Court. Dodrill had been found guilty in 2016 of child abuse and was sentenced to 3 to 15 years in prison.

Velena Beety, a professor of law at WVU, said this is the second shaken baby syndrome case where the West Virginia Innocent Project law clinic has freed a client.

Valena Beety | WVU College of Law professor site

"We’ve been able to assist two other clients with grants of parole in West Virginia," Beety said in an interview with The West Virginia Record.  "We are currently litigating cases in federal and state courts around West Virginia on issues ranging from DNA to fire science."

Beety said this decision signals West Virginia has an alert trial bench that is aware and invested in forensic justice issues.

"Chris’ case is the second WVIP case in the past two years where a conviction has been reversed because the judge recognized the forensic evidence was faulty," Beety said. "Judges in West Virginia are willing to step up and demand accurate scientific evidence be presented in the courtroom and will reverse wrongful convictions."

Cases at the clinic are predominantly litigated by third-year law students.

Beety said the students grow into responsible and committed practitioners who are ready to join the bar by the time they graduate.

"We are very proud to see our WVIP graduates serving the state as federal and state public defenders, state prosecutors, and federal and state judicial clerks," Beety said. "Their experiences in the innocence clinic empower them to change our criminal justice system as attorneys across West Virginia."

Melissa Giggenbach, the program coordinator and staff attorney for the WVIP, said it is satisfying to see the students' hard work.

"For me, it is very gratifying to see the students' hard work and perseverance culminate in freedom for our clients from a wrongful conviction and to know that we are challenging the spread of the false 'science' of SBS in our court system."

Giggenbach said the clinic's main mission is to exonerate innocent people but also to keep the wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.

"Through the work with our students in the clinic and through our speaking engagements throughout the state, our goal is to make as many lawyers as possible aware of the common sources of wrongful convictions whether its bad forensic science, eyewitness testimony or even involuntary confessions," Giggenbach said.

In Dodrill's case, he consistently testified that the child fell and hit her head and that he took her to the hospital.

Because there was swelling in her brain and a subdural hematoma, the hospital diagnosed the child with shaken baby syndrome instead of eliminating other possible causes for her injury. The child fully recovered.

Tyle Circuit Judge David W. Hummell Jr. found that Dodrill's trial counsel was ineffective. The law clinic submitted court reports from a biomechanical expert and a pediatric neurologist on Dodrill's behalf, as well as depositions of West Virginia's primary expert and defense counsel. 

The clinic was able to prove that the child had underlying health issues made worse by the fall and that Dodrill did not cause her injuries. 

The West Virginia Innocence Project Law Clinic is funded, in part, by the firm Wilson, Frame & Metheney in Morgantown.

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