NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
Senior Litigation Counsel, Innocence Project
Freed 30 Innocent People from Prison and Death Row
Nina Morrison will never forget the day when her client, an inmate on death row, was executed. “I was in my first year of law school, and it happened during exam week,” she says. “I was one of his last phone calls before he was executed.” The traumatic experience almost dissuaded Morrison from working on death penalty cases altogether. But shortly after graduating from law school, she received an offer to help manage a small but growing legal clinic called the Innocence Project. “I thought it would be a great way to impact the public’s understanding of how the death penalty was not functioning fairly or properly,” says Morrison. Twenty years later, Morrison is one of the Innocence Project’s top litigators who’s working to make the criminal legal system a fairer, more reliable institution.
The Innocence Project has evolved into a prominent human rights group and foremost proponent of DNA technology for righting wrongful convictions—and, often, for solving crimes. “People can differ on whether prison, restorative justice, or the death penalty is the right solution,” says Morrison. “But you can’t have accountability when innocent people are imprisoned and the guilty evade justice.” That ethos has guided Morrison through dozens of cases and helped her exonerate 30 innocent people from prison and death row through DNA or other newly discovered evidence. Her wins in the courtroom have served as the impetus for the Innocence Project’s national initiative to compensate wrongly convicted people and hold corrupt prosecutors accountable.
One legal victory that embodies that policy agenda is the case of Michael Morton, a young father who was falsely accused and convicted of murdering his wife. A quarter-century after Morton’s imprisonment, Morrison secured a court ruling to test DNA evidence that freed Morton and identified his wife’s true killer. Her investigation uncovered additional evidence hidden by the prosecutor who had sent Morton to prison. The ruling, which led to the passage of the Michael Morton Act, remains the only U.S. case resulting in a prosecutor serving jail time for misconduct leading to a wrongful conviction. It also overhauled Texas’s criminal discovery laws and vastly increased the transparency of the pre-trial process in the state.
Morrison appears regularly on major news outlets, including CNN, NPR, and The New York Times, and her work has been the subject of two award-winning documentaries. But among her biggest successes, she says, are the reminders of the dozens of lives she has fought for and liberated along the way. “One of my clients is the honorary godfather of my daughter. I’ve attended clients’ weddings and a couple of funerals,” she says. “That’s incredibly meaningful. If I have a legacy, I hope that’s part of it.”