The first TIAA-CREF Faculty Award for Distinguished Public Service is being awarded to Mark Godsey, a professor at the UC College of Law and faculty director of the Ohio Innocence Project, which is part of the college’s Rosenthal Institute for Justice.
The new award seeks to recognize a faculty member who has provided extraordinary service to the community, including efforts "that are unpaid and are not considered as part of normal service expectations."
On that count, Godsey qualifies, in spades.
Those who have witnessed Godsey’s efforts firsthand say that the hours he has devoted to the founding and development of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) since 2003 easily number into the thousands.
Famed defense attorney Barry Scheck, the national co-director of the Innocence Project, is among the admirers of Godsey’s effort.
"Unlike many other Innocence Project directors, Mark is also a full-time, tenure-track professor in a doctrinal rather than clinical discipline," says Scheck. "Mark has significant teaching and scholarship responsibilities outside of his Innocence Project responsibilities that most other directors across the country do not have. The fact that he has brought the OIP so far is such a short period of time, with significant other responsibilities, is highly commendable."
Godsey accepted his faculty position at UC in January, 2003, and even then – eight months before he began his formal employment at UC – he started work to create the OIP. Formal establishment of the group came four years ago this month.
Since then, the OIP has helped three men gain their release from prison, including, most famously, the release of Clarence Elkins after a wrongful murder and rape conviction left him serving a life sentence in prison.
Elkins’ wife, Melinda, always believed her husband was innocent, but had a hard time finding allies with the skills and tenacity to get the justice system to take another look at her husbands’ case.
Melinda Elkins says that once Godsey got on board with Clarence’s case, he seemed constantly to be engaged by it, admitting to her that it frequently kept him awake at night. "There are two sides of Mark that people may or may not know," she says. "He has a side that is laid back and easy to understand, and then there’s a passionate side about him that gets very intense. He is truly bothered by the idea that there are innocent people in prison, and his demeanor shows that. This is not just a job for him, it’s his life."
Godsey shares that commitment with his students. Each year, approximately 20 second-year UC law students are selected as Rosenthal Institute for Justice Fellows who work on OIP cases. They help comb through hundreds of requests for help that come into the OIP each year and, when appropriate cases are found, dig through mountains of paper as they research the case.
|Melinda and Clarence Elkins, front, with UC law students who worked on Clarence's case and, back right, Mark Godsey.|
As already seen in the experience of the OIP, it takes a tremendous amount of work and effort to get the criminal justice system to reverse itself, even if clear-cut scientific evidence points to the fact that an innocent person is sitting in prison.
Godsey was himself a federal prosecutor a decade ago, and is aware of that mindset. But after witnessing a DNA-based exoneration led by the college’s students when he was on the faculty at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase Law School, he began to further investigate the work of Innocence Projects. Over the course of one year, he went from skeptic to strong believer.
The issue, he says, is one of complete justice.
"I don’t know what (the criminal justice system) is afraid of," says Godsey. "The Clarence Elkins case and the Joe Elliott case illustrate exactly what the two possibilities are that can happen. One is that the person is proven innocent, like Elkins, and in that case, we also actually identified who the true killer was. In the case of a guy we worked with named Joe Elliott, a DNA test proved he was guilty, and this was a guy who had been screaming from prison that he’s innocent for 10 years and causing all kinds of problems for the victim’s family, and the results helped shut him up."
Godsey’s transition to DNA advocate was not an overnight affair. With the same zeal that has made him successful in pursuing OIP cases, he threw himself into learning everything about the applications of DNA in the legal process that he could find. As a result, he now teaches the DNA training course at the Innocence Project’s annual national meeting.
That is just one of the many aspects related to the OIP that Godsey fulfills, all while also fulfilling all his academic responsibilities at the College of Law.
UC College of Law Dean Louis Bilionis is among those who admire Godsey’s level of commitment.
While listing supervision of OIP students and litigation across the state as time-consuming aspects of Godsey’s involvement, Bilionis also notes that he "visits inmates, interviews witnesses and essentially acts as the managing partner of the busy law firm that OIP has become. Mark also acts as a spokesman for the wrongfully convicted, speaking at churches, bar events, colleges, political functions and the like across the state of Ohio several times each month."
Adds Melinda Elkins: "Mark has a level of commitment I have not seen from anyone else."