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Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, Law, UC Davis School of Law

  • When: September 29, 2021, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at

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Learning from Mistakes

Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, there have been 156 people exonerated from death row. Each of these cases tells a story of the failures of legal institutions to prevent wrongful convictions where mistakes carry the most severe consequences. These institutional failures range from indigent defense systems tasked with providing effective assistance of counsel that fall short of their constitutional responsibility, to prosecutors failing in their duties as ministers of justice, to defendants being convicted of crimes although they were factually innocent.

This paper explores how to resolve a problem that lies at the heart of these failures in the criminal justice system: that the individualistic nature of legal representation serves to constrain the acknowledgment and correction of mistakes by its legal actors. By focusing on one group of system actors, public defenders who represent clients charged with capital offenses, this project uncovers the limitations inherent to identifying and learning from instances where these attorneys have either contributed to or failed to prevent such miscarriages of justice. It describes the inadequate reaction of legal institutions to successful appellate claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. It isolates the insufficient responses to learning about convictions of defendants who were eventually proven actually innocent by scientific evidence. It gathers each of the above realities to further convey how the review processes of the legal practice in these situations fail to meet expectations for maintaining the integrity of the legal profession.

After reviewing these truths, this paper proposes a formal scheme for better responding to such alarming failures in criminal justice administration. This scheme requires a larger institutional role in the learning process that would include directed involvement by the trial attorneys in appellate work, greater action by system leadership to address the official misconduct of other government actors and a more formalized review by disciplinary boards on their own volition of appellate reversals.

(The related draft can be accessed by contacting Sophie Kofman at

Photo and bio courtesy of UC Davis School of Law

Professor Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe joined the faculty at UC Davis School of Law in 2016. Her teaching profile includes Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Professional Responsibility (Legal Ethics), and Voir Dire (Jury Selection). Her research focuses on how the design of the criminal process affects the ability of institutional attorneys to manage overwhelming caseloads and comply with ethical requirements. Professor Joe’s recent articles have appeared or are forthcoming in the Iowa Law Review, the California Law Review, the UC Davis Law Review, the Boston University Law Review, the UCLA Law Review, and the Denver Law Review. Professor Joe also published an op-ed during the 2016 presidential election cycle titled, “Like Many Immigrants, I Owe a Debt to the Republican Party…of the 1980s” in the Los Angeles Times.

Prior to joining the UC Davis faculty, Professor Joe served as a fellow for the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama where she represented indigent defendants in capital post-conviction litigation and children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She then completed a federal clerkship with the Honorable Napoleon Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California before returning to practicing criminal law. Professor Joe was both a line defender and the Assistant Special Litigation Counsel at the Orleans Public Defenders, a public defender office newly created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She was also the Assistant Training Director with the Louisiana Public Defender Board where she was responsible for creating and implementing statewide training programs for the public defenders, investigators, mitigation specialists and administrative staff tasked with providing constitutional and ethical representation to defendants facing misdemeanor, felony and capital charges. Professor Joe transitioned to legal academia as a Binder Teaching Fellow at UCLA School of Law before assuming her position at UC Davis School of Law.

You can follow Professor Joe via her Twitter handle: @ireneojoe

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