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UC Law Student to Graduate to Full-Time Innocence Project Work

Bobbi Madonna, who graduates along with 124 other classmates at this week's 175th Hooding Ceremony for the UC College of Law, will soon be working on cases in Tallahassee, Fla., at one of the nation's busiest Innocence Projects

Date: 5/12/2008 8:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
Spring break in Florida took an unexpected detour for UC law student Bobbi Madonna, requiring a quick change in mode during March from casual beachgoer to the professional appearance of an aspiring lawyer.

Madonna made it to a spur-of-the-moment interview with the Innocence Project of Florida several hours later, feeling sunburnt and unprepared, and convinced she wouldnít get the job.

She was wrong.

Madonna will graduate from the UC College of Law during the collegeís 175th Hooding Ceremony, set for Saturday, May 17, at 1 p.m. at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in downtown Cincinnati.

Bobbi Madonna
Bobbi Madonna in UC's Mock Trial classroom

Only a couple of weeks after, she will start her new position as assistant director of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF).

"This is like a dream job for me," says Madonna, who participated in the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) while a law student at UC. She is the first alumnus of OIP, which is based at the UC College of Law and has been in existence since 2003, to land a job with another Innocence Project.

"Itís a great job, a really cool job to land right out of law school," adds Jenny Carroll, academic director for the OIP. "Florida has a very well-recognized Innocence Project with a very good reputation."

Madonna was still in the job market when spring break arrived, and she and five law school friends headed down to St. Petersburg, Fla. She had seen the IPF position listed online and had sent a resume and been through a phone interview. But it was while on break that communication came that they wanted to meet her in person.

"They called and said they wanted to fly me down, and I told them, ĎIím only three hours away right now,í " Madonna recalls. "I had to run to find something to wear to an interview with my friends, and we ended up in a Wal-Mart, desperately trying to find something that would be appropriate for an interview. I was terribly sunburnt and I was sure I wouldnít get the job, but the interview had to be done that day."

Adding to the irony is the fact that Madonna counted Florida as one state where she did not want to work in her job search, but the IPF position was too tempting not to take a look at.

After helping supervise Madonnaís efforts on the OIP, Carroll is not surprised that she was hired.

"Innocence Projects look for people like Bobbi, who are really committed to the work," says Carroll. "She is incredibly committed to pursuing justice for people who wouldnít otherwise have access to representation."

As the first member of her family to graduate college, let alone law school, Madonna comes from a different environment than many law students.

"I know I come from a different background," says Madonna. "Iím drawn to underdogs and people that werenít given things on a silver platter. Those are the kind of people I feel like I ought to be helping."

Madonna is originally from Peoria, Ill., but grew up in Middletown, Ohio, and earned her undergraduate degree from Miami University.

She wasnít sure what she would do in law school, but remembers going to a gathering put together by UCís law student groups on her first day on campus. "As soon as I saw the Innocence Project and what they were all about, I was like, ĎThis is 100 percent what I am going to do,í " she says.

UC law students chosen for the OIP work from the summer after their first year of law school through their second year studies. Madonna and her OIP partner, Whitney Sheff, were given a pile of about 40 cases to research.

Itís a big caseload, but Carroll recalls the students making a total commitment to the work.

"Our students really put themselves into this. They treat this as, ĎThis is my client and what I believe in, so Iím going to do the work,í " Carroll says. "Bobbi was one who was never going to blow anyone off just because someone is inarticulate or didnít say the magic words in their first letter written to us, and that was true even if she didnít have much free time or would rather be going out on a Friday night with her friends."

Madonna and Sheff ended up devoting many hours to a case of a woman who they believed to be wrongly convicted of child molestation. But the case did not go well Ė legal issues kept them from being able to file a claim for the woman in a higher court, leaving the only avenue to be an upcoming parole hearing.

The two law students became so immersed in the case that the OIP decided they would be the best representation the woman would have in her parole hearing, but ultimately, parole was denied.

"When we lost, it was one of the first times in my life, because Iíve been successful in school, that I lost in something important," Madonna says. "That wasnít easy, but it was important to learn."

Madonna says she didnít sleep for two days after one visit to prison to tell the woman more bad news about her case. But she knows that many more defeats await her down the path she has chosen.

"I learned that lesson quickly, and itís something Iíll need for the rest of my career. I want to eventually do criminal defense work, and Iím going to lose a lot."

Even though she went through her OIP experience without experiencing the high of a big victory, Carroll doesnít think it will make much difference for Madonna ultimately.

"For every case an Innocence Project gets like a Clarence Elkins case (who was freed by the OIP), there are 40 others where someone is busting their rear end and the case isnít going anywhere. Bobbiís got the commitment that speaks volumes about the kind of lawyer sheíll be. You canít give up, even when youíre tired, when a client is depending on you."

Madonnaís work with IPF will be filling in much the same role that Carroll has taken with her at UC. She will be working to train the law students who are involved with the IPF as they go about investigating claims made by prisoners in the Florida correctional system, which ranks third in the country in number of inmates incarcerated.

"People donít want to believe that innocent people are locked up," says Madonna. "Iíve learned about that attitude since working with the Innocence Project. But if you put yourself in the position of (someone innocent behind bars), thatís something that no one should have to live with. Once people are incarcerated, people think they are bad human beings, and they donít ever think that these circumstances do occur."