Unit will review cases of those ‘actually innocent’ – Minnesota Lawyer


Great North Innocence Project Executive Director Sara Jones

Name: Sara Jones

Title: Executive director, Great North Innocence Project

Education: B.S., Northwestern University, communications/rhetorical history; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Executive director Sara Jones and the Great North Innocence Project are working with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office to create the state’s first Conviction Review Unit.

The unit will review cases of people who are “actually innocent having nothing to do with the crime,” Jones said.

“If the wrong person is in prison that means that the person who committed the crime is potentially out free committing other crimes,” Jones said.

The Great North Innocence Project received a two-year, $300,000 federal grant in October to launch the unit next year.

The Great North Innocence Project, previously known as Innocence Project of Minnesota, now also serves the Dakotas.

Jones’ father, C. Paul Jones, was Minnesota’s first state public defender. She was an assistant attorney general under Attorney General Skip Humphrey before going into private practice. Jones also has worked in advancement at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and the University of Minnesota Law School.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: If you ask me about my children or my dogs, I can talk at length. I have three children and two dogs.

Q: Why did you study law and pursue it as a career?

A: I did my best to deny it, swearing I would never be a lawyer and certainly never a criminal lawyer. But I guess my dad had more of an influence on me than I wanted to admit.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: My favorite author lately is Jesmyn Ward. She’s won the National Book Award a couple of times. “Salvage the Bones” was the first one I read and then “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” She writes beautifully about a part of the country, in Louisiana and Mississippi, that I didn’t know about.

Q: What’s a pet peeve of yours?

A: Clutter, as I sit here surrounded by it. Also when people don’t turn the lights off when they leave a room.

Q: What do you like best about your work?

A: I like the fact that we are working for justice. We are trying to find truth to the extent that we can. The people who are our clients I think of as really courageous because they could be sitting in prison serving long sentences and they manage to keep up hope.

Q: What do you least like about it?

A: The mundane things like making sure invoices get paid.

Q: What do you like doing away from work?

A: I love spending time with my family. The kids are all coming home for a couple months. I garden as kind of a therapeutic thing. I love hiking or being outdoors and dance. I used to be a pretty serious dancer, modern dance. While it’s been years since I’ve done that seriously, I love to watch it and participate when I can.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you most admire—and why?

A: I’d have to include my dad. In terms of the attorneys I most admire the ones I work with right now, Julie Jonas, Jim Meyer and Andrew Markquart are top of my list. My partner too, David Miller. He’s a lawyer. From the attorney general’s office: Cathy Haukedahl; Rich Slowes; David Schultz, now a U.S. magistrate judge; John Tunheim, the federal judge; Skip Humphrey.

Q: What’s a misconception people have about working as an attorney?

A: People sometimes think we’re trying to get people off on technicalities, which isn’t true. They have to be actually innocent having nothing to do with the crime that occurred.

Q: What’s your favorite depiction of the law or the legal profession in popular culture?

A: Given the passing of Justice Ginsburg I would say “RBG.” A couple of movies that hit home for our work are “Brian Banks,” who spoke at a couple of our benefit events, and the movie and the book “Just Mercy.”

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