At least 300 wrongfully convicted individuals nationwide have been exonerated and freed from prison thanks to the efforts of various Innocence Projects in the United States. This summer, Kristi Martel ’13 is helping to increase that number as an intern at the Montana Innocence Project.
"With help from law students, our small organization can examine many more cases and help more people than we otherwise could," said Jessie McQuillan, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, a 501c3 organization founded in 2008 by a group of public officials, attorneys, journalists and professors. "And students benefit, too, because our hands-on training about the justice system provides such valuable experience."
Martel is part of a team of law students, lawyers, journalism students and criminology students working on behalf of incarcerated inmates who have exhausted their trial and appeals options and still maintain their innocence. Martel combs through case files, searching for something that could give the inmate a chance at a new evidentiary hearing—a rape kit that was never examined, flawed expert testimony, conflicting eyewitness reports, or undisclosed evidence. “I scour their files looking for one nugget of probative evidence that might have been overlooked or that could be developed,” she said. While criminal case files can be graphic and sometimes difficult to read, Martel explains that her compassionate and dedicated colleagues—seven interns and three attorneys—make dealing with the subject matter easier.
Choosing law school
Prior to law school, Martel had two careers—one in advertising and another in high-performance motorcycle racing and instruction. She won an amateur motorcycle racing championship in 2010 and reaches speeds of roughly 160 MPH on the race track. While she no longer races, she still teaches high-performance motorcycle riding with the California Superbike School
whenever she can. In her time in the motorbike community, she met people from all walks of life. These experiences broadened her horizons, inspiring her to consider a career in law.
In the course of her prior work, Martel met individuals who had spent time in prison. “I met good, productive people who have faced immense legal challenges, and they shared their horror stories with me,” she said. “They were overwhelmed and frustrated by the legal system. I got to see what a difference a compassionate person, trained in the law, could make in someone’s life.” She has pursued this mission by dedicating herself to representing the most disadvantaged clients: the indigent and the incarcerated.
A native of Los Angeles, Martel chose Penn State for the rolling hills and open spaces. In her second year of law school, she spent two academic semesters externing with the Blair County Public Defender’s Office. “That externship changed the way I thought,” she said. “I realized how much negotiation skill and rapport goes into a plea bargain. It was so much more nuanced than the black-and-white world of a statute book.” She went on to explain, “I was ecstatic to be surrounded by similarly driven individuals, passionate about solving problems for vulnerable clients.”
Martel plans to continue teaching high-performance motorcycle riding, and she will continue building her expertise in criminal defense with a spring 2013 externship with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. “My experience with the Montana Innocence Project has taught me not to give up. I am inspired and amazed working with individuals who maintain their innocence and their optimism for years on end, despite the seemingly interminable gauntlet of legal strictures they face. I realize now that whatever my circumstances, I, too, can probably get through it.”
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