Ensuring justice, righting wrongs

By Matthew Sotlar

The Ohio Innocence Project works to prevent and overturn cases of wrongfully convicted individuals, and its message is spreading at Youngstown State University.

In 1992, the Innocence Project began at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. In the following years, the nonprofit organization spread across the country. 

The Ohio Innocence Project is located at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, but it operates across the state at multiple universities. Christopher Bellas, a YSU professor of criminal justice, said YSU’s chapter of the Ohio Innocence Project primarily spreads awareness.

“There’s an actual clinic in the law school — in Cincinnati — and those are primarily law school students who actually work on specific cases. We at YSU are not going to be working on an individual case. Our goal is to spread awareness about those that have been wrongfully convicted in Ohio,” Bellas said.

Because YSU’s chapter cannot work on cases, members have the opportunity to review the cases studied by the University of Cincinnati. Bellas said the organization focuses mostly on Ohio-based cases.

“One of the things we do is we review documentaries of cases of wrongful conviction, primarily in Ohio. I think some members attended a virtual conference about the Innocence Project. We have done a number of things, but the organization is new, and we’re trying to come up with new ideas,” Bellas said. 

According to Bellas, YSU’s chapter began in early 2023, joining other Ohio universities that have their own chapters. 

“It’s maybe coming up on one year since we met with the people from Cincinnati about starting up the YSU chapter,” Bellas said. “Kent State [University] has a student organization, [The University of Akron] has a student organization.”

Bellas said his main goal for the semester is to promote community engagement.

“This would be a great way of having civic engagement and outreach with the community, that’s my goal,” Bellas said. “We have this club on campus, I think there are people in Youngstown that have an interest in this that would come to our event.”

Priya Dhakal, a criminal justice graduate student, is the president of YSU’s Ohio Innocence Project. Both Bellas and Dhakal are interested in bringing in a guest speaker to the university.

“For this semester, Dr. Bellas planned to bring on a guest speaker … we’re kind of looking for that. Apart from that, I’ve been looking for conferences,” Dhakal said.

YSU’s Ohio Innocence Project aims to meet at least once a month. Dhakal said membership needs to increase to be more active. 

“For the last semester, we had only four meetings. It kind of depends on the flow of students. Since we are less in number and we all are graduate students, we need undergraduate students for the club to run,” Dhakal said.

To promote the organization, Dhakal has hung flyers around campus, including DeBartolo Hall and Cushwa Hall. She said keeping students informed is a priority.

“Even the professors should kind of reach out to students, or we have to be more active on social media. Since we’re here for a short time, we are also engaged in our own studies, which makes it hard to be involved with the undergrads,” Dhakal said.

Anyone interested in joining YSU’s Ohio Innocence Project can contact Bellas at [email protected] or Dhakal at [email protected] to be added to the membership list. 

Leave a Reply