Innocence Project alums reunited as public defenders

San Diego native Blake Eaton knew he wanted to be a lawyer ever since he was in middle school. After enrolling at UTD, he quickly became involved in Moot Court, Mock Trial and the Innocence Project — an initiative to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals. Today, he works alongside two other UTD alums in the San Diego Federal Defender’s office.

“A few years before I started college, there was a case regarding Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas. He was convicted and executed for setting a fire in a shed or something like that, which killed his children,” Eaton said. “For whatever reason, they thought it was deliberately set. They had this arson expert testify about patterns of the burn that only happen when you have an intentionally set burn, but since then, and since the state murdered him, the evidence is very convincing that it was an electrical fire or something completely accidental. He did not do it.”

At UTD, the Innocence Project is a class where students look at records from criminal cases and see if there’s a possibility that the defendant might be innocent. Eaton and other students in the class had to go beyond the normal legal issues and try to find other ways to prove that the defendants were innocent even after being convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I think the biggest takeaway from [the class] was that you’ve got to get it right the first time,” Eaton said. “It got me thinking…you cannot just avoid messing up someone’s life, but you can actually do things that change the outcome for them. You’re actually a positive influence on what happens, and that’s what I try to do as an attorney.”

While at UTD, Eaton befriended Theo Torres, a fellow pre-law student and freshman suitemate. They took the Innocence Project class and worked on cases together. Eaton and Torres credit their time in the Innocence Project with broadening their understanding of the criminal justice system and the role of public defenders.

“You go in with sort of the thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to get this innocent person out of prison.’ Like it’s just like a movie. That’s an idealized version of what it really is,” Torres said. “Looking at trial transcripts, there’s a lot of ambiguity. It’s not clear that this person did it or didn’t and you’re left with a lot of doubts going either way. What I came to understand throughout doing this for a couple of years was that the system operates in such a way that it brutalizes people, regardless of whether they did or didn’t do the thing they’re accused of.”

After graduation, the two went to different law schools — the University of Chicago and Yale, respectively. But their paths crossed again when they later found themselves working at Federal Defenders of San Diego. There, they met another UTD alum, Zainab Khan.

As a student, Khan was vice president of the John Marshall Pre-Law Society, and after graduation, she attended SMU’s Dedman School of Law. While there, she worked at the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America – an experience, she said, that solidified her choice to become a public defender. In 2018, she became the first hijabi trial attorney in the country to work at a federal public defender’s office.

“I think my hijab had always been an issue in terms of like, how will I represent people from my own community or other people? Will it have a negative impact? You definitely have to have a strong sense of self,” Khan said.

Today, the three former Comets work on immigration cases that typically involve illegal re-entry, smuggling and drugs.

“I remember sitting in law school and in my first couple of classes for criminal law, there was this statistic where it said more Black people are in jail now than were ever enslaved in the United States,” Khan said. “So when I look at drug laws, they have really, really harsh penalties, and I don’t think that’s okay, especially when you look at like the type of people that are being prosecuted.”

Reflecting on their experiences, all three said UTD and the Innocent Project played a valuable role in where they are today.

“I think a lot of people who are not involved in the [judicial] system think that its primary function should be sorting the guilty from the innocent. But once you start scratching at each one of these cases, you saw something wrong, something being done incorrectly,” Torres said. “Working with the Innocence Project class was just really eye-opening in so many ways. I definitely think it was a key factor in making me the kind of lawyer I am now.”