On Monday, December 11, attorney Deirdre M. Enright visited campus to deliver the Portsmouth Abbey School Seton lecture. The Seton Lecture is an annual presentation on a topic related to American history, politics or culture and is supported by the Saint Elizabeth Seton Lecture Fund established with Portsmouth's endowment by Seton J. Shanley '57 in 1976.
Ms. Enright is the director of investigation for University of Virginia Law School's Innocence Project Clinic. She previously worked at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, where she represented clients and consulted on cases in all stages of capital litigation, with primary focus on federal and state post-conviction proceedings and Supreme Court certiorari review. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1992, Enright worked as a staff attorney at the Mississippi Capital Defense Resource Center.
Perhaps most well known for her participation in the podcast Serial, Enright takes on cases that are fraught with confusion, unreliable witnesses, shoddy investigative work, and are often decades old. "Wrongful convictions are really easy to make," she told the School community, "but overturning those convictions is extremely difficult."
Enright's background bears many similarities to current students at Portsmouth Abbey: she was educated in a cloistered convent school that was service focused. As a student, Enright served at homeless shelters, homes for battered women, and more, but never felt quite comfortable. "They felt a little like empty gestures," she said. She knew she wanted work to consume her and to truly change people's lives. Her work with the Innocence Project Clinic fills those requirements and then some.
One of the clinic's current clients is Rojai Fentress. The case, as all of them are, is a convoluted one, populated with a list of key characters who are unreliable, deceased, or, in some cases, have admitted to wrongful actions. Rojai's case has inspired several journalists to write articles describing the many miscarriages of justice that took place since his 1996 arrest, when he was sixteen years old, at his high school.
After explaining the particulars of the case, Enright was able to patch Rojai in on a phone call from Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, VA. This particular institution is a Level 3 Facility, the lowest level allowed for the nature of the alleged crime. Because of his first-degree murder conviction, no matter how well-behaved he is during his sentence, he will never be able to transfer to a facility with less violent inmates. During his 21 years of incarceration, Rojai has been to 15 different institutions, and transferred to two of those twice.
On speakerphone, Rojai candidly answered questions about his feelings during the arrest, trial, and subsequent sentence. He explained how angry he was at first, knowing he was innocent and being thrown into prison as a child with awful predators. He was scared, angry, and confused, and didn't see a way out. For a time, Rojai struggled with suicidal thoughts. But today, Rojai is serene and puts his faith in God. He doesn't blame the system or society as much as he blames a lack of education. "It's not necessarily society's fault...my mother was not educated, I was not educated. If we had the proper education, the system would not be able to manipulate our ignorance." Rojai remains steadfast in this thought, refusing to label anyone involved in his case as someone out to get him: "With good there's evil, with evil there's good. The system isn't broken, it's just not right. It is our duty to correct it."
If the Innocence Project succeeds, and Rojai is freed, both he and Enright promised to return to Portsmouth Abbey, where he can receive his standing ovation in person. "I wouldn't miss it for the world," Rojai said over the phone. "You guys are our future." As of today, Rojai's release date is set for November 30, 2043, when he will be 63 years old.
There is one guiding principle to Enright's work – one that she learned as a student in Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. She was worried about a math test, so she decided to pray about it. She knelt down and began her prayer when her mother walked in and demanded that she stop immediately. "But why?" Enright asked. "I was always taught to pray about challenges." Her mother looked at her and replied: "You pray after you've done everything humanly possible to succeed – then you hand it over."
On days when the prospect of setting innocent people free seems daunting, during long hours poring over paperwork and fact-checking, when she feels ready to hand it over, she remembers that line from her mother. There is always something else she can do, something possible that she can try, to make sure she's made every humanly effort. It is this attitude that makes it possible to investigate and litigate over 15 wrongful criminal convictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and perhaps will see Rojai Fentress to freedom.