By Ari Bloomekatz
Enquirer staff writer
The University of Cincinnati's Center for Law and Justice is being awarded a $1 million endowment from local benefactors Lois and Richard Rosenthal.
The gift will be announced today at the start of Innocence Week. Other events include a speech by attorney Barry Scheck, a member of the O.J. Simpson defense team, and the local opening of the play The Exonerated.
The Center for Law and Justice, to be renamed the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice today, was founded at the University of Cincinnati in 2002. The institute approaches many social-welfare projects in the city but is best known for the Ohio Innocence Project started in 2003, which seeks to exonerate wrongly imprisoned inmates by using new information and new technologies such as DNA identification.
"The Innocence Project is truly a passion we have," said Lois Rosenthal. "When you are of (financial) means, you can hire careful representation. But when you are poor or not knowledgeable about the law, you are not represented as well."
The Innocence Project has branches across the country. More than 140 wrongfully convicted inmates have been freed through their efforts.
Mark Godsey, a professor of law at the university and director of the institute, said the endowment is an important base to continue projects in coming years. City Councilman John Cranley is the administrative director of the institute and advises students.
Law students who have finished their first year of school can apply to join the institute. Students sign up for different projects or cases. Once they receive an assignment, they work throughout the summer for a small stipend and for at least 200 hours during the following year for course credit.
"We have this resource of law students who are young, idealistic, energetic and very smart. The (Lois and Richard) Rosenthal Institute for Justice is a unique idea of tapping into all of that enthusiasm and intellect and allow that to go to use," Godsey said.
Students work on the Innocence Project as well as various public interest issues.
Megan Maag, 24, now a third-year law student at the University of Cincinnati, worked at the center from the summer of 2003 until the school year ended in 2004.
Maag and her partner, Adam Tomakich, tried to pass Trina's Law while at the center.
The pair was inspired by a former classmate, Trina Hatchett, who sued her ex-boyfriend for trying to kill her. He was found guilty in criminal court, but Hatchett had to retry her case in civil court. More than 40 states have laws similar to Trina's Law.
"We researched all the states that allowed this law, (to) see how they did it," Maag said, adding that she hadn't even heard about this problem until talking to Hatchett. "It helps victims like Trina not have to relive the crime."
After months of research and with help from State Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, the bill Maag helped write was introduced to the Ohio Legislature in November. The legislation is pending.
Other students at the institute were concerned with Cincinnati's environment and proposed a new law to fill a hole they said was created by the repeal of Title X in 2002 - which shut down the office of environmental management because of budget constraints.
Nithin Akuthota, Michael Cappel and Jim Herbe spoke with local environmentalists, professors at the University of Cincinnati and environmental attorneys during the summer of 2003 and then wrote a research paper isolating the city's environmental shortcomings and proposing a solution.
The group's paper soon helped fuel The Cincinnati Clean Air Act, which was presented by Councilmen David Crowley and John Cranley and passed 8-1 in City Council this May. Akuthota, 24, said the act brings back many aspects of Title X but is more cost-effective.
Under the act, the city of Cincinnati can investigate environmental or odor complaints by contracting with the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services.
"It helps a lot of disadvantaged members of our community that normally wouldn't receive the help," Akuthota said. "A lot of the environmental and odor pollution complaints are located in the low-income and minority neighborhoods."
Also as part of Innocence Week, the Rosenthals helped sponsor and bring the play The Exonerated to Cincinnati.
The play is based on the lives of death-row inmates who were wrongly imprisoned but eventually released.
"You just get so excited thinking that you can actually do service to these people, to recreate what they went through, to create a message of hope that the Innocence Project exists," said director Lynn Meyers. The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is putting on the play.
"If we do our job right, you will have hope that eventually justice prevails (after seeing the play)," Meyers said. "You will have a great sense of knowing that the Innocence Project is in place and they're fighting for justice, and you'll also know something really important - that a human spirit can't be killed."
Innocence Week activities
Tuesday: Invitation-only performance of The Exonerated. Barry Scheck will speak to the audience before the show at 6 p.m. A reception is at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. For one night only, Jerry Springer, talk show host and former Cincinnati mayor, will play the part of Gary.
Wednesday: Barry Scheck speaks at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. The event begins at noon and is free and open to the public.
Thursday: A panel discussion titled "Politics and Theater" will be at the Gallagher Student Center Theatre at Xavier University. Scheduled guests include the director of The Exonerated, local politicians and local community theater leaders. Event is free and open to the public and starts at 2:30 p.m.
Friday: Scott Hornoff, a police officer from Rhode Island who was on death row and wrongly convicted of killing his wife, speaks at the University of Cincinnati College of Law in room 114 at 2 p.m. Hornoff was exonerated by DNA evidence.
Ongoing: From Wednesday through Sept. 26, The Exonerated will be performed Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. A special Tuesday night showing on Sept. 14 will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28 for adults and $25 for students. All showings are at The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati at 1127 Vine St. Call 421-3555 for more information.
Sharon Coolidge contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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