A man serving a 50-year prison sentence will have another chance to prove his innocence thanks to Mercer Law School’s Habeas Project. Under the guidance of program director Brian Kammer, Class of 2023 graduate Taylor Rinberger argued the case in front of the Georgia Supreme Court on March 29, explaining how key evidence had not been presented in the original trial. The court agreed in its opinion, released May 16.
The Habeas Project, established by Mercer Law Professor Sarah Gerwig in 2006, allows third-year law students to work with clients in need on cases under close faculty supervision. The clinic focuses on habeas corpus proceedings, through which a prisoner can present evidence that may not have been shown during trial, such as evidence of innocence or poor lawyering. The Habeas Project is the only program in Georgia that takes on noncapital, post-conviction cases on a pro bono basis, bridging a gap in legal assistance in the state.
The recent case was referred to Mercer Law School by the Georgia Supreme Court. The client was convicted in 2017 and filed a habeas corpus action a couple years later, saying his lawyers had failed to present key evidence that could have proven his innocence, Kammer said. The habeas court judge ruled in his favor, but then the state appealed, bringing the case to Mercer and before the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The basis of the case is ineffective assistance of counsel,” said Rinberger, who will take the bar in July and is currently working as an assistant public defender in the Dublin Judicial Circuit. “(The client’s) trial counsel did not share a very important detail in discrediting the main witness against him. We were showing the court that it was constitutionally ineffective, and he should have had the opportunity to discredit this witness that sent him to prison.”
Kammer and Rinberger conducted extensive research on the case, met with the client several times in prison, and wrote several drafts of the brief before submitting it to the court. They talked through several strategies for arguing the case, and Rinberger had three practice, or “moot,” sessions with lawyers before going before the Supreme Court.
“It’s a huge deal,” Kammer said. “This client had been sentenced to 50 years. He had proclaimed his innocence throughout this whole ordeal. The state knew it had this exculpatory evidence but didn’t bring it out. The trial attorneys also didn’t bring it out. It was a real breakdown in the trial system. It was a pretty egregious failure in terms of the court, district attorney and defense.”
Kammer said the client was ecstatic and felt vindicated by the ruling. He will get a new trial, and this evidence of innocence will play a major part in it.
“It was one thing to get the win from the habeas court. Then, learning the state had appealed it was deflating (for the client). But knowing that he had attorneys and incredibly competent law students on his side really buoyed his confidence,” Kammer said. “I think this case has shown the benefit of clinical programs in the law school setting, not just to underserved communities who benefit from the assistance but also to the students who gain an invaluable real-world experience.”
A rule enacted in 2021 allows students to argue before the Supreme Court under supervision, and Rinberger was the first Mercer Law student to do so. Kammer said he doesn’t know of any other law students anywhere who have argued in front of the Georgia Supreme Court and won the case.
“Taylor did a great job of arguing the case for relief and why the habeas court ruling should be affirmed,” Kammer said. “I’m very proud of her.”
For Rinberger, being a part of the Habeas Project clinic was a “once-in-a-career opportunity” that allowed her to have hands-on experience that she may not have otherwise had. Preparing and going before the Georgia Supreme Court was stressful and overwhelming, but in a good way, she said. She knew the case had real implications for the client, so her work and argument really mattered, as did the victory.