Women in the Law

A profile on professor Mary Kelly Tate. Part of a special editorial series celebrating the achievements of Virginia’s women legal professionals.

Photo by Kim Lee Schmidt

Mary Kelly Tate, Richmond

Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond School of Law

It matters to a democracy how well its criminal justice system works, says Tate. Where it fails—with wrongful conviction or excess sentencing—the Institute for Actual Innocence seeks to redress that wrong. Law students, working under Tate’s supervision, pursue “post-conviction relief” for individuals convicted of serious felonies in Virginia. In some cases, they seek exoneration: In 2013, the Institute helped win exoneration, using DNA evidence, for a 1977 conviction.  In other cases, it is clemency: Recently, the clinic secured commutation of a life sentence for a low-level, nonviolent drug offense. Tate says that wrongful convictions are generally the result of an accumulation of “things that went badly,” including false confessions, faulty witness identification, bad forensic science, inadequate legal representation and prosecutorial misconduct. 

The nation’s network of innocence projects, says Tate, who earned her law degree at UVA, serve as an important check on these system failures. But post-conviction relief is a far-from-perfect corrective. The process is “extraordinarily complex,” and slow-moving says Tate. It can take years for a case to wend its way through the system, with “not a high likelihood of success.” 

And how many innocent people are wrongfully convicted in this country? It’s a “dark number”—an unknown—says Tate. The National Registry of Exonerations currently lists all known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989 at 2,045. These cases—certainly representing only some portion of those convicted of crimes they didn’t commit—account for more than 17,770 years lost, according to the Registry. 

The problem of wrongful conviction and over-punishment is not simply a tragedy for the individual, Tate argues. In its unequal application of justice, in depriving innocent individuals of their liberty, it is a costly and morally problematic challenge for our nation. 

Editors’ note: Women were first admitted to the state bar in 1920, thus making it possible for them to practice law in the Commonwealth. Nearly a century later, women in the law throughout Virginia have risen into positions of leadership and responsibility in public and private practice, nonprofits, education, the judicial system and legal organizations. The editors of Virginia Living sought out some of these outstanding women for their perspectives on their work and the law, and insights from their careers. For more information, including a complete list of Virginia’s top-rated women lawyers, look for our August 2017 issue.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women in the Law special series:

Jessica Childress, Northern Virginia
Patricia Roberts, Williamsburg
Pia Trigiani, Alexandria
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