A Volunteer's Perspective

Posted by  on June 09, 2014 

The Montana Innocence Project is dedicated to rescuing innocent people who have fallen through the cracks in our criminal justice system.  They also work tirelessly to repair those cracks and prevent future wrongful convictions.  I began volunteering with the Montana Innocence Project (MTIP) my second semester of law school.  Initially, my interest was piqued by the numerous Innocence Project exonerations nation-wide that I had heard and read about prior to attending law school.  As an aspiring criminal defense attorney, I fully support their mission of exonerating the wrongfully convicted and preventing wrongful convictions in Montana.  However, I was not fully prepared for the overwhelming degree of personal growth and satisfaction I would gain from working with such a diverse, friendly, diligent, and knowledgeable group of people.  The legal issues, people, and cases I deal with at the Project continue to be the highlight of my law school experience.


The value of teamwork and efficiency at the Project is paramount to its success.  MTIP subjects hundreds of cases to a rigorous screening process each year.  This process requires staff, students, and volunteers to collaborate and decide which cases the MTIP should continue to investigate, and which cases should be referred to other organizations.  While only a small percentage of the cases fit our criteria, the diligence with which MTIP puts into screening every case is astounding.  Every case we accept brings a new opportunity to correct an injustice and free a wrongfully convicted person.  While this is a grave responsibility, it brings with it personal satisfaction and growth that is unparalleled.

Working with MTIP has been a first-class educational experience.  I have learned about DNA testing, arson investigation, ear-witness testimony, shaken baby syndrome, and countless other interesting issues.  These issues have arisen in the homicide, sexual assault, robbery, fugitive, and other cases I have had the privilege of working on.  While these issues and cases make every minute at the Project exciting and interesting, it is the staff, students, and volunteers that drive these cases forward.

The staff at MTIP has a unique ability to make every student and volunteer feel like an all-star advocate for justice.  As co-founder, Jessie McQuillan created a productive and welcoming environment at MTIP; this is a tradition that continues under Keegan Flaherty’s direction.  Brendan McQuillan and Larry Mansch are distinguished criminal defense attorneys who are always willing to share their knowledge and expertise.  They have spent considerable time and effort helping me to develop my analytical and writing skills.  These skills readily transfer to other areas of law, and thus have greatly benefited me in law school.  Brendan and Larry continue to assist my understanding of the various legal and factual issues involved in complex cases, and they are never too busy to talk me through an issue or work with me on a brief. 

It has been my sincere pleasure to work with the staff, students, interns, and volunteers at the Montana Innocence Project.  They are truly passionate and inspirational in their search for justice. I will fondly carry my experiences with this organization into my legal career.

Tobias Cook, Juris Doctorate Candidate 2015