James Bain spent 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Because of the Innocence Project of Florida, a pro bono organization that offers free legal services to help exonerate innocent Florida prisoners, Bain got his life back.
“With eight months of legal work after the first phone call, they were able to get me out,” Bain said. “I didn’t trust anyone with my case, but I trusted them because they kind of came to me… It was a gift from God.”
He said they made the process of getting situated back into daily life very comfortable, providing anything from food stamps to a driver’s license through a social worker.
This practice is only a glimpse of what the pro bono system can do for clients seeking justice. To promote this system, the Fredric G. Levin College of Law at the University of Florida is hosting its first Pro Bono Week from Oct. 24 to 31.
“Pro Bono Week is designed to educate law students of the value of pro bono service and is the result of the collaborative efforts of multiple student organizations,” said Erin Carr, assistant director for career development at the UF Levin College of Law.
“Pro bono service allows members of the legal community to utilize their specialized legal training to benefit individuals who would otherwise lack access to justice,” Carr said.
The purpose of the week’s events is to highlight the contributions of pro bono attorneys, while also inspiring the next generation of legal practitioners to commit to pro bono service, she said.
The most recent man exonerated, Andre Bryant, spent eight and a half years in prison before the IPF took over his case and proved his innocence. He said the organization saved his life.
“Once they took the case, it was a rather speedy investigation and everyone wanted to help,” Bryant said. “With their help I finally felt free – free from all the bondage, free to finally live my life.”
Pro bono matters are inextricably tied to access to justice, said Meshon Rawls, master legal skills professor at the UF Levin College of Law.
Finding an attorney is not an option for someone who cannot afford to dedicate money or time to legal services, Rawls said.
“Issues that poor people face are not issues they can blow off,” Rawls said. “They need someone to help them because the issues are life changing. They need people to open up.”
The role of pro bono and paid work is the same, Rawls said. The same competent, zealous representation is expected.
Adina Thompson, intake coordinator for the IPF, stressed how important this equal treatment is while speaking alongside Rawls at the UF Levin College of Law on Monday.
“Every case is a friendship, and we treat it as such,” Thompson said. “Passion cannot be learned. It is something you take to this job and understand how every task could lead to an exoneration.”
She said all the cases she looks at start out as a letter from an inmate. Bain said he was contacted by the IPF shortly after writing his letter.
Thompson takes the time to read the inmates’ stories, but legal interns are the ones who truly help prove the prisoners’ innocence.
Thompson said she was originally inspired to get involved with the IPF after meeting Bain at a conference in Atlanta in 2010. Their meeting led her to want to be part of the change in the justice system.
Although Monday’s discussion stressed the IPF, Dion Bass, a second-year law student in the UF Levin College of Law who moderated the event, said the entire pro bono week aims to impress upon students and faculty that pro bono work does have value.
Bass said he served in the military before attending law school, so he understands the benefit of providing a service to the community in the way that the pro bono system does.
“People can’t afford the help, so we have to give back,” Bass said. “It’s altruistic in a sense, but it’s in me to do it. We hope to instill the importance of pro bono this week.”