One class can change your life in ways you would never imagine. Just ask Katie Monroe, JD ’90.
As a student at Mason’s School of Law, Monroe was searching for her legal niche—until she took Professor Robert Davidow’s criminal procedures class.
“He changed my life, and he knows he changed my life because I had to tell him over and over,” she says. “I think about him a lot when I’m picking apart complex criminal case facts.”
But at the time, Monroe had no idea how much that class would actually change her life. Just as her career was getting under way, a family crisis struck. In 1992, Monroe’s mother, Beverly, was convicted of murdering her companion, Roger de la Burde, in what investigators theorized was a murder staged as a suicide. Beverly was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Despite the fact that key evidence was withheld—including both state and local medical examiners ruling the death a suicide—it took 10 years for the conviction to be overturned. In total, Beverly spent seven of those years in prison. Monroe, who had completed a clerkship with the Virginia Circuit Court of Appeals and later joined the Civil Rights Commission, quit her job and did nothing but work on the case for eight years.
While Monroe had developed her interest in criminal justice through law school, it was her family’s struggle that truly forged her career. She has since dedicated herself to innocence work, from the policy side as well as the on-the-ground fight to free those who have been wrongfully convicted.
“I always felt that on some level my personal and professional lives collided,” she says.
After her mother’s case was resolved, Monroe spent two years at the Constitution Project, a think tank dedicated to improving the criminal justice system. She then became executive director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, an affiliate of the Innocence Project that works to free those wrongfully convicted.
She spent the next six years in Salt Lake City, Utah, working cases in the region and partnering with state officials to improve laws regulating postconviction cases, including landmark innocence legislation in Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah.
Her policy work captured the attention of the New York-based Innocence Project, the first of the nationwide network. The group approached Monroe to serve as their Washington, D.C.-based senior advocate for national partnerships, a job she began in August 2012.
Her new job puts her on the preventive side of innocence work, as she meets with national law enforcement and prosecutorial organizations to discuss partnerships and efforts to prevent wrongful convictions.
While criminal law is regulated at the state level, Monroe says the federal government has taken an interest in wrongful convictions in recent years, opening new revenue streams through the U.S. Department of Justice for wrongful conviction investigations. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2009 on ways to strengthen forensic science as a discipline. With more resulting discussion at the national level about improving investigative procedures, Monroe’s coalition-building work comes at a critical juncture.
The key to her efforts, according to Monroe, is recognizing the common ground between innocence groups, lawmakers, and law enforcers.
“Preventing [wrongful convictions] is not just for the benefit of an innocent suspect, it’s for the benefit of crime victims and for the benefit of the tax-paying public, and for the benefit of law enforcement officials themselves,” Monroe says. “Nobody wants the wrong person to end up in prison.”
The return to Washington is a homecoming for Monroe, who is happy to be living close to her family once again, including her mother who is now remarried and living in Williamsburg.
“There’s no room for us to feel anything but blessed,” she says. “I know hundreds of exonerees, and almost across the board, these are people who are not embittered. The reason is that they feel lucky.”