A law degree from prison? Minnesota school says enrollee is a first

  • The student is the first of what Mitchell Hamline School of Law hopes will become a pipeline of students serving time
  • The American Bar Association is allowing a small number of incarcerated students to attend class remotely

(Reuters) – A Minnesota law school is poised to become the first American Bar Association-accredited law school with a J.D. student attending class from inside prison.

Mitchell Hamline School of Law said Monday that Maureen Onyelobi, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for aiding and abetting a 2014 murder, will be the school’s first incarcerated student this fall.

Officials at the St. Paul school last month received permission from the ABA to enroll up to two incarcerated students in each of the next five years and is allowing them to attend class fully online. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has also granted its approval.

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The law school is raising private money to fund tuition and related costs for Onyelobi to attend classes from the Minnesota women’s prison where she is serving her sentence.

“We have a drive and a passion to learn the law that most have never seen before because we know what it is to be in here,” Onyelobi said in a statement.

Prosecutors said Onyelobi was an accomplice in the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Anthony Fairbanks, and that she was part of a ring that supplied drugs to Fairbanks. The shooter pleaded guilty and received a shorter sentence than Onyelobi, who went to trial and was convicted of first-degree murder.

Mitchell Hamline has worked for three years with All Square, a Minneapolis nonprofit focused on assisting people affected by mass incarceration, to establish the new Prison-to-Law Pipeline program. They began collaborating in 2018, with two of the law school’s clinics providing civil legal services to individuals recently released from prison.

Training incarcerated individuals to become lawyers has been a longtime goal for Mitchell Hamline law dean Anthony Niedwiecki, who administered the Law School Admission Test in prison to Onyelobi and other law-school hopefuls in the spring of 2021.

“It’s really important for incarcerated individuals to be part of the legal system and the study of law,” Niedwiecki said. “The perspective of someone who’s currently in the system is helpful to students and anyone who is trying to do things to change the law.”

Perry Moriearty, a University of Minnesota law professor whose legal clinic is assisting Onyelobi in a bid to reduce her sentence, said she plans to use her law degree to work on issues related to incarceration and possibly help prisoners on post-conviction matters. Moriearty called her a “a talented, disciplined and dedicated student.”

The pair have discussed how her conviction may be a barrier if she completes her J.D. and applies to become a member of the bar, Moriearty said. Attorneys must undergo a character and fitness review to be licensed, but convicted felons have been admitted to the bar in the past.

Read more:

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‘I let go of the outcome’: How this felon beat addiction and won back his law license

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