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Julie Jonas
Julie Jonas

Breaking the Ice: Work on wrongful convictions brings honors

University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Julie Jonas has received special recognition for her continued efforts to overturn and prevent wrongful convictions.

Jonas was the recipient of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys’ 2022 Ronald I. Meshbesher Distinguished Service Award, which the school said, “honors a Minnesota attorney for a lifetime of achievement and devotion to the practice of criminal defense.”

Considering herself fortunate to focus on innocence work, Jonas said that “to get honored for it by people who are in the trenches doing work that is incredibility difficult but incredibly necessary just really humbled me.”

Jonas, an adjunct professor before joining the law school faculty in the fall, previously was the longtime legal director of the Great North Innocence Project. She secured the release of seven men who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. She is representing two long-term project clients on a pro bono basis.

At the Legislature, Jonas worked to win passage of bills awarding compensation to exonerated individuals, requiring police to use best practices in eyewitness identifications and tracking and regulating the use of jailhouse informants.

Name: Julie Jonas

Title: Professor, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Education: B.A., speech communications, University of Minnesota; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Ask me about new movies that are not big superhero movies. I love going to the movies and talking about good movies.

Q: Why law school?

A: I wanted to help people. I wanted to practice criminal law. I liked crime novels and TV shows. On “Hill Street Blues,” there was a female public defender who was always helping the underdog and I wanted to be like her.

Q: What books are you reading?

A: I just finished “Demon Copperhead,” a Barbara Kingsolver book that is an update of Dickens’ “David Copperfield” except set in Kentucky. It involves problems in the foster care system and the opioid addiction problem.

Q: What’s your pet peeve?

A: Hypocrites and loud gum chewers.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: With Innocence Project work, it’s getting people out of prison. Right now, I enjoy seeing that students are engaged and understand the material. It’s such wonderful feedback when I can make difficult concepts more concrete and understandable and do it in a somewhat entertaining and engaging manner.

Q: Most challenging?

A: With innocence work, it’s working on cases where I believe someone’s innocent but can’t prove it. With teaching, I don’t like grading. Nobody likes grading papers. I don’t like judging people. But for the privilege of getting to teach, it’s what you do.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I love hanging out with my friends. I love travel. And therefore, I love traveling with friends.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: In the summertime, I’d want to give them a taste of lake culture, going to Lake Harriet or down to the river. If I could, get them out into Greater Minnesota to someone’s cabin to go boating or go up to the North Shore. In the wintertime, probably Mia [Minneapolis Institute of Art]. We have such a world class institution there.

Q: Legal figure you most admire?

A: RBG. Her work was brilliant. I admire her dissents. I just love that that little justice.

Q: Misconception that others have about your work?

A: The general public believes that if you can prove that something significant went wrong with someone’s trial or that there’s new, important proof of innocence, that that means it’s easy to get them out of prison. That’s just not the case. Our system is geared so after there’s a conviction it takes so much to overturn that verdict.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: The original “Law and Order.” No crimes are solved and prosecuted that quickly, but the gravitas of the show, the ripped-from-the-headlines and the way things played out, I loved it.


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