Jennifer Chunias can't rest knowing innocent people are in prison
Published in 2006 Massachusetts Rising Stars magazine
on April 20, 2006
Updated on September 22, 2016
On Nov. 6, 2002, Jeffrey Scott Hornoff was freed from prison after serving six years for a murder he didn’t commit. When he was first accused, Hornoff was a 27-year-old police detective in Warwick, R.I. Despite no physical evidence or witness testimony linking him to the crime — only a prior acquaintance with the victim and a shaky alibi — he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. By the time he was released, he’d lost everything: his wife and family, his house, his career.
“I think about that case a lot,” says Jennifer Chunias, the coordinator of the New England Innocence Project (NEIP). Like most people who seek the NEIP’s help, Hornoff was out of options when he contacted the group. All attempts to appeal his verdict had been unsuccessful. The NEIP was taking steps to begin post-conviction DNA testing — the first ever in Rhode Island — when the actual perpetrator of the crime confessed and turned himself in. “Scott was a police detective,” says Chunias, who was new to the NEIP at the time and notes the work of lawyers Robert Feldman and Amanda Metts on the case. “Here was someone who worked in the system, who believed in the system, and that system let him down. He always says, ‘If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.’”
Since 2000, the NEIP’s work has led to the exoneration of six people, who, combined, served more than 60 years in prison. The organization has become a personal mission and a second (or third) job for Chunias, a senior associate at Goodwin Procter who splits her time between commercial litigation and white-collar crime and government investigations. She balances her full caseload at the firm with her NEIP work and a clinical workshop she runs at Harvard Law School — “[which I do] in the middle of the night, or so my mother says.”
A hectic schedule is nothing new for Chunias. As the elder of two daughters in a tight-knit, hard-working Andover family, she displayed what she calls “classic eldest child syndrome” from an early age. In high school, she played volleyball, ran track, participated in student government, and worked as a paralegal for a local law firm, all while remaining at the top of her class academically. “People say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ but I’ve always been extremely busy,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Vermont with a degree in political science and sociology, Chunias spent four years working in public health research, first with Planned Parenthood and then with the New England Research Institute (NERI). It was her work with the NERI that helped clarify what she was looking for in her career. “I was involved in a large national research study involving women and HIV, and I served on a community advisory board that included some of the study participants,” she says. “It was a perfect match for me, because it gave me a connection with the actual human beings involved in the study. It made me realize that I wanted to be in a position where I could have an impact on social issues — working in the system and directly with clients — rather than in an academic or clinical setting where I would be one layer removed.”
It was her passion for direct advocacy that led Chunias to the law. She enrolled at Northeastern while continuing to work part-time at NERI. As a part of Northeastern’s co-op program, which requires students to alternate their studies with work in the field, she clerked for a judge, got big-firm experience at Palmer & Dodge, and worked for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which provides free legal services for low-income Boston-area residents.
Chunias wanted to construct a legal career that would serve the public interest, and Northeastern helped her imagine how that might work. “Being a lawyer for the public interest is broader than just working in public services or on pro bono cases,” she says. “Northeastern’s philosophy helped give me an awareness of the human dimensions of every conflict — who wins, who loses, the consequences for the parties as they are played out in the litigation context.”
After graduating in 1999 she accepted a job with Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault. Through the firm’s pro bono department, she represented indigent criminal defendants in both the state and federal courts. She was paired with her colleague Joe Savage, who was launching a new venture: New England’s version of the Innocence Project, the legal clinic and criminal justice resource center that helps exonerate people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Founded by Peter Neufeld and O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck in 1992, the Innocence Project takes on cases in which post-conviction DNA testing can provide conclusive proof of innocence. To date, its national network has helped exonerate 174 individuals, including the six in New England.
“I went to a Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers meeting where Peter Neufeld was the speaker,” Savage recalls. “He said they needed help.” Savage and three other attorneys discussed the idea and put together a network of local law school professors who were willing to commit time and resources. Savage also worked with Testa Hurwitz to bring the project in-house, making it the first Innocence Project ever sponsored by a large law firm.
Chunias was inspired to action after being present at the exoneration of Kenny Waters — a man who was convicted of murder and armed robbery and served 18 years in prison before his sister (who put herself through college and law school in a quest to prove her brother’s innocence) located blood and hair samples found at the murder scene. DNA testing established that Waters could not have committed the crime.
“I remember being at a press conference with colleagues and being dumbstruck,” Chunias recalls. “The system had failed everyone — the victim of the crime, Kenny Waters, society at large, these families. That’s when I realized I wanted to be more involved.”
Chunias began by supervising a group of Northeastern law students who were doing a legal research project for NEIP. In 2003 she was asked to take on her current role as the NEIP’s coordinator; she also serves on the group’s board of trustees. She considers the work a calling. “It kind of chose me,” she says.
In early 2005, Testa Hurwitz disbanded. Chunias was on leave from her practice at the time, having been appointed the Climenko/Thayer Lecturer on Law for the First Year Lawyering program at Harvard. After a period of uncertainty, she followed Savage and the NEIP to Goodwin Procter. Today, in addition to her thriving litigation practice, Chunias manages the organization’s day-to-day activities, supervises four attorneys and four paralegals, represents several NEIP clients herself and supports reforms in the local criminal justice system. At any time there are about a dozen active cases, with 50 more in review and 100 on a waiting list. She also advocates for legislative changes to help prevent other wrongful convictions.
Chunias is quick to characterize the NEIP as a collective effort. “I’m part of a team of people — attorneys, paralegals, administrative staff, board members, volunteers and pro bono attorneys — who all work together to make the case and policy work happen,” she says. Her colleagues are just as quick to praise her many contributions.
“Jennifer’s work is absolutely crucial and utterly thankless,” Savage says. “The NEIP wouldn’t be where it is without her.”
Both Savage and Chunias express hope that the NEIP will one day put itself out of business. “There’s been a revolution in the viewpoint of the prosecutors and the police,” Savage says. “Until it was scientifically possible to prove that there was an error rate in the system, people would think it could never happen to them.”
In fact, Hornoff, who remarried after his release and is completing a master’s degree in criminal justice, believes there may be thousands of wrongfully convicted people in U.S. prisons. “If there are 2.1 million to 2.5 million people incarcerated in the U.S., even at a 1 percent margin of error, we’re talking about tens of thousands of people,” he says. Since his release, Hornoff has taken an active role in helping raise awareness about the issue. As one of several exonerees featured in the award-winning documentary After Innocence, he attended the Sundance premiere of the film and has made appearances at other showings of the film across the country. He volunteers for the NEIP doing case review, and he has also testified for judicial-reform bills.
Hornoff has high praise for Chunias and her colleagues. “These attorneys could be doing anything with their lives, but for some reason wrongful conviction is at the top of their list,” he says. “I especially admire them because in only about 24 percent of cases where DNA testing is done is someone actually proved to be innocent. It shows that most people who are arrested, tried and convicted — even those who maintain their innocence — are actually the correct offenders. But [Chunias and her staff] don’t let that sway them. They keep plugging away, because they know there are innocent people in prison.”
For Chunias, the combination of her corporate practice and her NEIP work has given her just the kind of meaningful public interest law career she sought as an idealistic overachiever right out of college. “A significant number of my clients would prefer not to need my services in the first place,” she says. “My goal is to help them navigate the system so that, if they have to be in this situation, they’re glad to have me as their advocate.”