UT Senior Fights Against Prisoners’ Wrongful Convictions

Published: Nov 6, 2009
The thought of an innocent person on death row being executed brings Gretchen Cothron to tears.

“We get mad when we get a parking ticket unjustly,” Cothron ’10 said. “I can’t imagine spending years behind bars.”

The UT Honors student, majoring in criminology and minoring in law and justice, began in the field with an interest in law enforcement, but her research on wrongful convictions and exonerations has led to a new calling.

As a junior at UT, Cothron worked on the necessity of recording interrogations, which isn’t required in Hillsborough County. She gave a presentation on the topic at the National Collegiate Honors Conference Oct. 31 in Washington, D.C.

Cothron’s work segued into an Honors Fellowship with Dr. Sean Maddan, assistant professor and chairman of the criminology department, researching a statistical formula to see how eyewitness testimony, faulty forensic science and false confessions contribute to wrongful convictions.

Cothron hopes to create a better understanding of cross-contamination, which she says occurs when one error in the criminal process, such as a false testimony, can lead to additional errors which can in turn lead to a wrongful conviction of an innocent person.

“Gretchen is a good example for students who are not just passionate about social problems, but also attempting to do something about it through substantive research,” Maddan said.

Cothron is working on the project with another student and professor at Creighton University and with The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to reform the criminal justice system and exonerate wrongfully convicted people based on DNA testing.

Cothron has presented her preliminary findings at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s annual conference and is presenting an extension of the same project at the American Society of Criminology's annual meeting in November. She credits UT faculty for the opportunities she’s been given for conference presentations, surprising herself at the level she’s reaching.

“At most of these conferences, I’m the only one there who isn’t a grad student or lawyer, and I’m presenting,” she said adding that most of the research in this area is conducted by lawyers and law students. “It’s going to be good for me academically, but there’s not enough being done on this issue.”

Cothron hopes to practice criminal appellate law after law school to help fund her real passion, a nonprofit she has formed called Screaming for Sunshine to assist with investigations of wrongful convictions.

“Florida leads the nation in the number of death-row exonerations,” Cothron said, “and there has to be countless others.”

Helping prisoners is pro-bono work and involves countless hours of research, whittling down the evidence. It’s what Cothron lives for.

“I’m a bookworm. I like the research and the end result, it brings you to tears,” she said. “But I love it. I’d rather read a case over than go to a movie.”

For more on her nonprofit, go to www.screamingforsunshine.info.


By Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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