Expert Law Professor Puts USF in the Spotlight

By Mary McInerney, Office of Development Communications Posted Thu, 08/18/2016 - 16:00

Defending innocence is important to Richard Leo, whether he is testifying about a case featured in the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” or fighting
for the reputations of five young men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger case.

“One of the central missions of USF is doing justice, and I am committed to doing justice,” Leo says.

Leo is nationally recognized as an expert on false confessions. As the Hamill Family Chair Professor of Law and Social Psychology at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Leo combines his passion for justice with his love of teaching, engaging students in his classes on Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure and in a seminar on wrongful convictions.

His research and publications bring academic and media attention to the law school, giving students the opportunity to learn from one of the most talented scholars in the field and to benefit from his experience with real cases.

Leo is often called as a consultant or expert witness on high-profile cases in which there is potentially unreliable evidence.

With the “Making a Murderer” case, he was asked to be involved in the appeal of Brendan Dassey — a teenager convicted of the murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach — by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law.

“They were concerned that his confession was involuntary and may be false,” says Leo, who has not seen the series. “They had me review the video and reports, and I made a report.”

Dassey’s videotaped interrogation and confession, which was subsequently recanted, played a pivotal role in the documentary series. Leo also testified in a post-conviction hearing for Dassey. A federal judge this month overturned the conviction of Dassey.

Enriching the academic environment

The case — and Leo’s involvement in it — immediately ignited discussion among USF law students, who were excitedly exploring the issues surrounding false confession in the Dassey case.

“We had our criminal law class with Professor Leo in the fall, and ‘Making a Murderer’ came out over winter break,” recalls Lana Persaud, a second-year USF law student with a judicial internship in the Northern District of California.

“As soon as it came out, we started talking about it, and then we learned he had offered expert testimony on Brendan Dassey’s appeal. I think that the students really do appreciate it, because you’re learning something from someone who is an expert on these important issues.”

Supporting Top Faculty

Bringing this type of expertise to students is one of the important reasons why Steve Hamill, chairman of the Board of Trustees at USF, and his wife, Jan, funded the endowed faculty chair that Leo holds. The Hamills want to encourage the kind of research, teaching, and writing that inspires students, supports the university’s mission, and draws attention to the important work being done at the School of Law, alma mater to Hamill ’78 and also his daughter Lindsay Hamill Penkower ’05.

“A guy like Richard Leo touches many, many lives,” Hamill says. “He does extremely positive work for people without resources.”

For Leo, there have been many more troubling cases during his professional career. For example: the Central Park jogger case that resulted in the false convictions of five young men in New York. He was involved in the civil cases of two of the five men, all of whom were juveniles when they were convicted. They all served full prison terms. Their convictions were later overturned because DNA testing proved they didn’t commit the crime.

Today, Leo is finishing a book on the history of wrongful convictions in the United States and the rise of the innocence mission in the past 20 years, since DNA testing was introduced.

Still, “it’s very hard to prove someone is innocent,” says Leo.

The Hamills’ endowment also funds an annual lecture at USF, and this year, the presentation was by Sr. Helen Prejean, with generous support from the Dean’s office at the law school. The story of Sr. Prejean, a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, was told in the film “Dead Man Walking.”

Leo is grateful to the Hamills for funding the endowment that supports his work and brings speakers like Sr. Prejean to the School of Law.

“Steve Hamill has been a great friend and benefactor of the law school. I am truly honored to hold a chair in his name.”

Endowed chairs are crucial for recruiting and retaining the highest-quality faculty. Find out more about giving to the School of Law