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Post-Conviction

Web-Savvy Law Student Helps Win Release of Battered Woman Jailed 29 Yrs

Posted Apr 2, 2009 8:18 AM CDT
By Molly McDonough

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Updated: The sixth try was the charm for a California woman imprisoned for 29 years for sitting in a car while her husband and his cousin robbed a liquor store and killed the store's owner.

Connie Keel's successful parole petition is being credited, in part, to the work of second-year law student Adam Reich of the University of Southern California. He argued that Keel's husband was abusive and threatened her with a gun before the robbery, according to media reports, including the Los Angeles Times' L.A. Now blog.

Adam Reich, 25, took on Keel's case in May 2008 as part of the USC Gould School of Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project.

Without discounting Keel's role in the crime, he argued to the parole board that Keel was fully rehabilitated and that 29 years was enough for "a crime of inaction."

But Reich didn’t stop at simply preparing his parole board argument, which heavily focused on battered women's syndrome, a defense not accepted until well after Keel was imprisoned. He took his advocacy for Keel to a whole new level.

In addition to the parole board appearance, Reich created a website at freeconnie.com and kept supporters up to date by filing updates on Twitter. The site listed ways in which supporters could help, including sending letters to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and spreading word of the case via social media.

In an e-mail interview with the ABA Journal, Reich said he spent 22 hours a day on the case from Jan. 1 through March 27, when Keel walked out of prison. Yes, we double-checked on that 22 hours per day note.

“I really haven't slept and have barely had time for school,” he says. Of that time, he estimates 50 percent was spent working the social media channels. He’s not a Web expert. Reich relied on a nonawyer friend, Elliot Darvick, to set up his Web channels.

So why so much time doing outreach?

Well, let’s just say that Gov. Schwarzenegger is notoriously stingy when it comes to releasing convicts on parole, even when the parole board makes that recommendation. Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle put the odds against Keel, noting that since the governor took office in 2003, the parole board, whose members he appoints, has voted to release 891 convicted murderers, and he’s vetoed 640.

Keel’s challenge went beyond convincing the parole board. She needed to build community support.

Social media was the way to go for Reich, who posted updates on Twitter, sent direct messages to friends on Facebook, contacted the press and advocacy groups interested in anti-domestic violence, prisoner rights, legal rights, and women's rights.

“All in all, our efforts through social media were warmly received and appreciated by the Internet community,” Reich says. “It seemed like every day a new person tweeted @schwarzenegger: #freeconnie and linked to the website, or someone posted media coverage related to the campaign.”

Reich, a New Yorker who hopes to pursue a career in litigation and possibly politics down the road, says he’d take the social media approach again, with the right case.

“My work on the Keel case has taught me that advocacy must extend beyond the courtroom/hearing room whenever circumstances enable others to influence a decision,” he says. “In my mind, the duty of zealous advocacy is not fulfilled if one just stops at arguing the case when he is fully aware that the decision issued in that room can be overturned by someone who was not present.”

Last updated at 1:30 p.m. to include comments from Reich.

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