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Lehigh Carbon Community College

Photos courtesy of Georgia Innocence Project.
Photos courtesy of Georgia Innocence Project.

A Reinhardt alumna and former Reinhardt professor recently made national headlines for her involvement in freeing a man who spent 22 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Meagan Hurley (’14) has now helped three wrongfully convicted men walk free.

Hurley, who grew up in the small northwest Georgia community of Lyerly, graduated from Reinhardt with a degree in Communication Arts, and a minor in global communication. She entered the workforce as a newspaper reporter, with a keen interest in crime, courts, and politics. After covering numerous cases and the national felony ethics trial of a former Alabama House Speaker, she decided to enroll at Mercer Law School and pursue public service law. In 2019, she got her Juris Doctor degree and began working for the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP). She simultaneously returned to Reinhardt to teach media law and ethics as an adjunct for three years, as well as the first-year seminar and a multimedia journalism workshop.

In 2020, Hurley was a member of the GIP legal team that used DNA evidence to free Johnny Gates after he’d served 43 years in prison from a conviction originating in Columbus, Georgia. In 2022, her GIP team and an investigative podcast turned up newly discovered evidence that led to the successful overturning of Lee Clark’s murder conviction in Rome, Georgia, after 25 years. This September, also in Rome, Joey Watkins was exonerated after 22 years for a murder he didn’t commit, thanks to Hurley and the rest of Watkins’ legal team, and their years of work. For this most recent exoneration, Hurley’s final contributions stemmed from her new role as professor and attorney for Mercer University School of Law’s Habeas Project clinic, which worked as co-counsel with GIP to see the case through. She first began working on the case years ago as a GIP attorney.

This fall, Hurley started a new career as an assistant professor of law at Mercer Law School in Macon. “I teach and litigate on behalf of the school’s post-conviction criminal defense clinic called the Habeas Project. My plan is to try to make the biggest impact that I can, which includes educating soon-to-be lawyers on how to do this work, the importance of it, and the societal value that it has.”

Hurley says Watkins’ case is particularly special because it is the reason she considered the Georgia Innocence Project as a job prospect. Growing up near Rome, she’d learned of his case as an adolescent. Its prominence on season two of the Undisclosed true-crime podcast inspired her to apply for an internship in law school, which sparked her six-year journey with the organization. She stays connected with Watkins and her other clients, having gotten to know them and their families well over the years. “I’m a pretty firm believer in holistic representation. To me, that means getting to know my clients as human beings beyond just their legal cases.”

Doing pro bono, indigent defense work is important and fulfilling to Hurley. “The clients are the reason I do this work, and to be able to see how hard and how long so many of them have fought to try to prove their innocence, even when nobody would believe them – it’s inspiring. Helping wake people up to what’s gone on in these cases is monumental, and to be able to play some small part in the change these cases can bring –and to experience giving that kind of news to a client — there’s nothing like it. It’s life-changing. I have learned so much from the clients that I have represented, and I feel really honored to have been part of their lives. I’m a firm believer that if we want to make things better, we have to shine light on the problems in our system and work together toward solutions. I’m so grateful to be in a position and a profession that allows me to wake up and work toward a brighter future each day.”