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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 77, No. 5, May 2004

    Legal News & Trends

    Reno testifies before Avery Task Force, advocates for an investigation checklist to prevent wrongful convictions

    Janet Reno

    Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (right) testifies before the Avery Task Force. Reno recommends creating an investigation checklist
    to avoid wrongful convictions.

    "He's making a list and checking it twice." Although the song refers to the jolly, bearded, red-suited bearer of gifts for children, law enforcement could take a cue from it.

    According to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, fewer innocent people would be convicted if police and prosecutors developed an investigation checklist that would prompt them to reexamine assumptions to ensure all avenues have been explored before filing criminal charges. Reno delivered her remarks to the Avery Task Force, chaired by attorney and State Representative Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin), at the State Capitol on April 22.

    The checklist should be made simple and preferably automated, but exhaustive, Reno said. She recommended that the checklist include the following inquiries:

    • Who are the suspects?
    • What leads have law enforcement identified and how have they been resolved?
    • Has all exculpatory evidence been shared with the defense, and if not, why not?
    • What inconsistencies are there in the case, including eyewitness accounts?
    • Was the confession taped, and if not, why not?
    • Have nearby law enforcement agencies been surveyed to identify other suspects?
    • Is there a reasonable basis for justifying the use of a jailhouse snitch?

    According to Reno, such a checklist could help avoid tunnel vision that can occur when law enforcement tightly focuses on a single suspect to the exclusion of all others. She also said it would assist police in "identifying the dots and connecting the dots in the right way."

    The Avery Task Force is reviewing practices and procedures in Wisconsin's criminal justice system that could be improved to avoid wrongful convictions and hopes to make recommendations by the end of the year. The state panel bears the name of Steven Avery, who spent 17-plus years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

    U.W. Law School underscores importance of legal writing

    A strong emphasis on legal writing, a change in grading policy, and examination of real-world legal problems are all part of a drive to put the U.W. Law School at the forefront of a movement to improve the communication skills of aspiring lawyers. One significant change is how the U.W. Law School grades legal writing courses. Previously, all law courses were graded on a numeric score - except legal writing, which was graded with a letter grade that was not figured into the numeric average. Legal writing classes now are graded numerically and included in a student's average.

    "This is a substantial change. It sends a loud message about the relative importance of legal writing," says Susan Steingass, director of the school's Communication and Advocacy Program.

    The campaign to strengthen both legal writing and oral communication grew out of a 2000 U.W. Law School study in which both graduates and employers identified communication skills as among the most important skills that a lawyer possesses.

    According to U.W. Law School Dean Kenneth B. Davis, Jr., the emphasis on legal writing will provide a stronger professional base for graduates that will serve them throughout their careers. "Because words are at the foundation of our work, sharp, focused legal writing is a powerful skill, and we are committed to providing our graduates the right tools to succeed in practice," says Davis.

    Steingass plans to meet this spring with faculty, State Bar representatives, and practicing attorneys to brainstorm new avenues the law school can pursue to strengthen the program.

    New overtime rules for white collar workers effective Aug. 21

    In April, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao announced the final, revised regulations governing wage and hour issues arising under the Fair Labor Standards Act, including regulations related to overtime pay eligibility for white-collar workers. The regulations had not been substantially updated for more than 50 years, creating confusion for workers and employers, generating wasteful class action litigation, and failing to effectively protect workers' pay rights.

    Under the old regulations, only workers earning less than $8,060 annually were guaranteed overtime pay. Under the new rules, workers earning $23,660 or less are guaranteed overtime pay.

    The U.S. Department of Labor's new "FairPay" rule, effective Aug. 21, is published in the Federal Register and a text version is available online. For more information about the Fair Labor Standards Act, visit the Department's Wage and Hour Division Web page.

    Students explore the color of justice at Law Day event

    In honor of Law Day, about 100 Wisconsin high school students from diverse, inner-city schools attended a forum at the Capitol on April 26. The forum, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, was cosponsored by the Wisconsin Legal History Committee (a joint committee of the Office of the Chief Justice and the State Bar) and the Dane County Legal Resource Center.

    The students were joined by the State Bar President George Burnett and President-elect Michelle Behnke; Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, Shirley S. Abrahamson, Jon P. Wilcox, Ann Walsh Bradley, N. Patrick Crooks, David Prosser, Jr., Diane S. Sykes, and Patience Drake Roggensack; First Lady Jessica Doyle; State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster; circuit court judges; and law professors.

    The goals of the program were to interest the students in taking advantage of educational opportunities, inspire them to overcome obstacles, and show them how the law can be a powerful tool for change. The program, which has been presented nationwide, is based on a model developed by the National Association of Women Judges.

    The students listened to personal stories about obstacles faced and overcome from Judge Maxine Aldridge White, Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Judge Ralph Ramirez, Waukesha County Circuit Court, and State Bar president-elect Behnke. U.W. Law School Vice Chancellor Linda Greene outlined academic requirements and skills needed for a legal career. The students had the opportunity to talk about their educational and career goals with the presenters during lunch, which was sponsored by the State Bar