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UM law school students free innocent man

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UM law students Brandy Keesee (left) and Annabelle Smith (right) were part of a cohort working with the Montana Innocence Project to free Bernard Pease, a Billings man wrongly convicted 40 years ago for murder. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA


MISSOULA—As part of their studies at the University of Montana, students in the Alexander Blewett III School of Law get hands-on experience working for clinics practicing law in a variety of fields. For most, these clinics provide valuable experience in the legal arena, but for some they become transformative, sparking a passion they will carry well into their future careers.

This year, Brandy Keesee, a first-generation college student and first-year law student, and third-year law student Annabelle Smith were part of a cohort working with the Montana Innocence Project to free Bernard Pease, a Billings man wrongly convicted 40 years ago for murder.

“I came to [UM Law] because of its smaller community where people care,” said Keesee. “Students at other schools will get to write papers about people like Bernard Pease; we get to actually help.” 

Pease was incarcerated based on forensic testing methods deemed invalid with modern DNA testing, explained MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter

“DNA testing was unavailable when Bernard was convicted of murder in 1984,” Carpenter said. “[MTIP] originally took up Bernard’s case in 2008, but at the time DNA testing was not considered new evidence.”

MTIP worked with the state Legislature to amend Montana’s DNA testing statute in 2015. This amended legislation allows modern DNA testing to qualify as new evidence of innocence. With this change in the law, MTIP saw an opportunity to move forward with Pease’s case.

“There is a ton of legwork needed to overturn a wrongful conviction,” said Carpenter. “Not only did we need to prove Bernard’s innocence with scientific data, but we needed to prove to the Board of Pardons and Parole that people wanted him back in the community.”

This is where Keesee and Smith came in, focusing on work that would otherwise not have funding to sustain.

“An email here, a phone call there. At first, it felt like these efforts weren’t leading to a successful outcome,” said Keesee.

Students interviewed family members, researched letters from the 1980s and ’90s, wrote letters on Bernard’s behalf, did legal research and helped file appeals.

“One thing that came into focus for me is the prejudices people who were incarcerated face,” said Smith, who eventually wants to work as a prosecutor. “This experience has given me more perspective on what the accused are facing.”

“There is very little sympathy or empathy for the accused. It can be very isolating,” said Keesee.

Working through these challenges ultimately paid off for Pease. He was granted release in November and lives in a prerelease center for the time being.

“We just kept doing the work that needed to be done,” said Keesee. “It was incremental and systematic.”

Some cases can take decades and not lead to anything. For MTIP and the UM law students, Bernard’s case was very satisfying.

“It’s not very often we see such fantastic results at MTIP,” Smith said. “This is amazing,”To learn more about Pease’s transfer to pre-release, check out the podcast “Unpacking Injustice” from the Montana Innocence Project.

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