From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Prison work fuels professors' passion for justice

Date 12 Feb 2001 14:38:30

Feb. 12, 2001 News media contact: Thomas S.
McAnally·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.     10-71BP{068}

NOTE: A photograph is available for use with this story.

By Erik Christianson*

MADISON, Wis. (UMNS) - The seeds of social justice were sown early in the
lives of Keith Findley and John Pray, clinical associate professors of law
at the University of Wisconsin.

Both children of the 1960s, they were reared by parents who fought for civil
rights and against the Vietnam War.  Findley's father was an activist
Methodist clergyman; Pray's father a University of Wisconsin-Madison

Those seeds reaped a huge harvest early this year, when Texas convict
Christopher Ochoa was exonerated for a rape and murder he did not commit.
Findley and Pray, along with three University of Wisconsin law students, led
the effort to convince authorities to test DNA evidence that proved Ochoa
was not guilty.

Ochoa's exoneration was the first for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, run
by Findley and Pray out of the university law school's Frank J. Remington
Center. The center comprises several clinical projects focused on teaching,
service and research in criminal justice.

"There is no needier population than the prison population," says Findley, a
former state public defender. "If you want to work for people who really
need your help, prisons are a good place to do it."

Formed by Findley and Pray two and a half years ago with the assistance of
attorney Barry Scheck, the Wisconsin Innocence Project investigates claims
of innocence by convicts in state and federal prisons, mostly in Wisconsin.
And, based on the evidence, sometimes they go to court to overturn what they
believe are wrongful convictions.

Scheck's Innocence Project, based at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N.
Cardozo Law School in New York, has used modern DNA technology and testing
to overturn more than 30 wrongful convictions. 

Findley and Pray point to their upbringings as critical to their choice of
profession today - and their decision to start the Wisconsin Innocence

 From 1963 to 1966, Findley lived in the Philippines, where his father,
States, Findley's dad worked as a staff member of the churchwide Board of
Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn., as a campus minister at
Wichita (Kan.) State University, and as professor of religion at United
Cecil, served as a Methodist missionary. After returning to the United
resides in Madison.
Methodist-related Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan. He currently

"I certainly was influenced in my young life by my father's work and the
church's involvement in social issues," Findley says. "Both of my
grandfathers were Evangelical United Brethren/United Methodist ministers,
one a missionary in China."

Social justice and service to the needy were ingrained in him at an early
age, particularly during the time he lived in the Philippines, he says. "I
always knew that, as a lawyer, my work would be focused on justice for and
service to the underprivileged and disadvantaged. Opposition to the death
penalty is an important part of my work and my value structure, and I'm sure
that was influenced by my upbringing in a United Methodist home."

Following undergraduate work at Indiana University and law school at Yale,
Findley joined the University of Wisconsin Law School's Legal Assistance to
Institutionalized Persons Program in 1985. By 1990, he had worked his way up
to deputy director of the program and was a clinical assistant professor.

He left the law school for the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office, where he
stayed for six and a half years before returning to the law school in 1997.

Pray, meanwhile, grew up in Madison as his father taught geology at the
university.  He, too, remembers the struggle for civil rights, anti-war
protests and his parents' involvement.

"My parents' commitment to social justice rubbed off on me to some extent,"
he says.

After earning undergraduate degrees at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa
and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Pray worked with mentally
disturbed children at a group home. He went on to earn a master's in social
work at the University of Georgia, then served as a social worker before
enrolling in the University of Wisconsin Law School.

He earned his law degree in 1986 and immediately was hired at the Remington
Center, where he and Findley began working together.

Since Ochoa's release Jan.16, Findley and Pray have been inundated with
phone calls, letters and e-mails requesting their assistance. Pray alone had
more than 200 e-mail messages after returning from Texas.

They say the successful outcome has renewed their energy for their work and
given the Wisconsin Innocence Project "instant credibility." Still, they
take a pragmatic approach to their jobs.

"It's not true that everyone in prison is innocent," Findley says. "Most are
not, but we have to listen to people in their situations, be willing to
suspend judgment and take them seriously, at least long enough to look into
their cases."

That's what Findley, Pray and their students did with the Ochoa case.
Because critical evidence from the case had been saved, they pressed ahead
with their request for DNA testing - and set a captive free.  

They realize they won't always be so fortunate.

"It's very improbable that most inmates will get out," Pray adds. "Chris
Ochoa had one chance in a billion. I've got a file full of letters with
requests, and I wonder where the next diamond in the rough is in there."

#  #  #

*Christianson is a writer for University Communications at the University of

United Methodist News Service
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