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Wofford students pose at the Innocence Network Conference in San Diego, CA

Students attend Innocence Network Conference

Psychology and the law meet for real-world look at the justice system

When you come face to face with a person who has been wrongfully imprisoned, it makes you consider the failings of the justice system. That’s what four Wofford College students who majored in psychology learned when they attended an Innocence Network conference in San Diego, Calif., in March. 

“Not only did the conference reinforce what we learned from Dr. McQuiston about the shortcomings of our criminal justice system, but it set fire to those convictions. It's not until you witness the victims who have carried the burden of our flawed system that something inside of you irreversibly ignites," says Faith Lifer ’17, a double major in psychology and humanities with a minor in film and digital media. 

“Knowledge is a privilege either way, but I think the real-life experience showed me how important empathy is when fighting for justice."

Dr. Dawn McQuiston, associate professor of psychology, made the conference opportunity possible for students who took her Psychology and the Law class and completed their senior thesis under her supervision because she understands the transformative value of out-of-class learning.

“Teaching and learning do not exclusively happen in a classroom," says McQuiston, who has expertise in the science of eyewitness identification and serves as an expert witness in criminal trials that involve disputed eyewitness evidence. "It’s hard to beat the sort of teachable moment that happens by meeting and interacting with someone who was in prison wrongfully for 25 years. My students had the opportunity to see firsthand how the legal system can impact people for a lifetime. They met many people still fighting for justice. They saw the strength it takes to be a lawyer in this environment, and how the field of psychology impacts the law."

The conference was emotionally tough, and the stories were often hard to hear, according to Lifer. “One woman explained how she and her husband were wrongly convicted of murder, so they were arrested and their 2-year-old and 4-year-old children were taken away from them. While she was in prison, her husband was wrongfully executed. She didn't see her children until she was exonerated 15 years later. Another woman's voice shook as she quietly told us how she was wrongly convicted of killing her 2-year-old son. Yet another woman birthed her second child in chains. She was allowed one hour with him before he was taken away from her. These are all women who were innocent, and our system failed them,” she says. “I think it's easy for us to distance ourselves from the situation and think it would never happen to us or the ones we love, but it's just not true.” 

“Any one of us could be falsely accused of a crime,” says McQuiston, who explains that the Innocence Project has, to date, helped to exonerate over 350 innocent people. “This number is the tip of the iceberg according to some legal scholars.” 

The Innocence Network is an affiliation of 69 organizations from all over the world dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions. More than 700 people — from legal professionals to students to families of those exonerated — attended the conference. Attending from Wofford were (pictured above from left to right): Faith Lifer ’17, Sami Bernstein ’17, Cierra Kaiser ’17 and Peggy Payne ’17 with Amanda Knox (center, wrongfully convicted in Italy as an exchange student).


by Sarah Madden ’17