Valena Beety, AB ’02, JD ’06: Helping the Wrongly Convicted with Her Law School Network

Valena Beety
Valena Beety, AB ’02, JD ’06

Two books out this year from Valena Beety, AB ’02, JD ’06, reflect the commitments that have guided her career for the last 13 years. She’s the author of Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights, and the coeditor of The Wrongful Convictions Reader. Now deputy director of the Academy for Justice at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, she was a staff attorney at the Mississippi Innocence Project and the founding director of the West Virginia Innocence Project.

Joining the first of those projects, in Mississippi, marked a big career turn for her. “I came to the Law School knowing that I wanted to be a prosecutor,” she said. “I had served as an advocate for rape victims as an undergraduate, and I saw how violence impacts survivors. I thought prison was the answer, and that I could be a protector.”

When she joined the US Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia in 2008, it wasn’t like she had thought it would be. “I saw how often prosecutions failed to help victims, and how frequently they relied on false information, dishonest forensics, and police misconduct,” she recalled.

She left for Mississippi the next year to be a protector of a different kind, working at the innocence project there for almost three years before she was hired to create and direct the West Virginia Innocence Project at the West Virginia University College of Law. During her seven years there, she built a strong connection with UChicago Law, bringing on four graduates to work on the project through the Justice Franklin D. Cleckley Fellowship. “I feel so gratified by the work those graduates have done after their fellowships,” she said. “Two of them are now working as federal public defenders, and two are working at exoneration projects.”

She has sustained her relationships with the Law School, including serving on the Law School Council and participating on reunion committees. She said that she still reaches out to Geoffrey Stone, ’71, and Herschella Conyers, ’83, for advice: “They were amazing mentors and role models for me when I was in Law School, and they still are today,” she said. She noted that she was strongly affected by the Stonewall Fellowship she received at the Law School, because that fellowship had been established by James Hormel, ’58. “I felt such admiration for all that Jim Hormel did for the LGBTQ+ community, including his founding of the Human Rights Campaign, which ultimately was a big factor in why today I can be married to my wife.” Her wife, Jennifer Oliva, is a professor at UC Hastings College of Law.

The center that Beety helps lead at Arizona State, where she also holds a professorship, focuses on connecting research with criminal justice policy reform. In her teaching and writing she advocates for broadening the understanding of what constitutes a wrongful conviction, applying a standard of manifest injustice that goes beyond factual innocence. “There are vast numbers of less than perfect, less than ‘factually innocent’ people whose convictions have been obtained through corruption, junk science, racism, and other legally dubious means,” she said. “We need to get over the narrative of finality in criminal convictions and shift the basis for reviewing convictions from proving factual innocence to considering all of the factors that went into a person’s incarceration.”

Beyond her new books, she is a prolific writer and frequent speaker. “So many things are motivating me these days,” she said. “I think it’s more important than ever for me to be visible as a queer woman at this time when women and queer people are particularly susceptible to injustice; I think the legitimacy of the legal system is endangered; and I have seen truth being swept aside by emotional narratives fueled by lies and fears. I do the work because I love what I’m doing. There’s a Rumi quote that I keep coming back to: ‘Let the beauty of what we love be what we do.’”

Learn more about Valena Beety’s work and her books.