It’s not every day that a second-year law student can moonlight as a private investigator. But that’s exactly what Dan O’Brien was doing in the office of an insurance agent who was also an alternate suspect in a double homicide. O’Brien and his partner were working the case for the Ohio Innocence Project, a group that uses law students to investigate claims of wrongful conviction.
O’Brien needed a DNA sample from the insurance agent to compare with evidence found at the crime scene. So posing as potential customers, O’Brien and his partner arranged a meeting with the insurance agent. Afterward, they asked him to fill out a phony sports survey. It was a side job, they told him, and they got a few bucks for each survey they turned in. When the man completed it, they asked him to put it in an envelope and seal it. Outside, they slipped the envelope into a plastic bag and shipped it to the lab.
In the end, the DNA on the envelope didn’t match the crime scene and the case went cold again.
But O’Brien, who graduated from Xavier with a degree in history in 2005, also saw success during his time with the Innocence Project. He helped write the memorandum to get DNA testing for Robert McClendon, a man who claimed he had been wrongfully convicted for a 1990 rape of a 10-year-old girl in Columbus.
O’Brien was given McClendon’s case when he started working for the Project in 2007, the summer after his first year at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. It was one of about 50 cases he was assigned, but one of the most hopeful.
O’Brien worked on the case for almost a year before a judge approved the DNA testing. In August 2008, the result came back: Another man had committed the crime. After 17 years behind bars, Robert McClendon was free, and O’Brien was there to welcome him out of prison. “He was just a real nice guy to begin with,” O’Brien says, “and so appreciative of the Innocence Project.”
One of O’Brien’s favorite memories is taking McClendon shopping at a Columbus mall. “He was really into technology,” O’Brien says. “The whole cell phone craze happened while he was in prison. He wanted the latest when he got out.”
O’Brien now works in civil litigation with the Cincinnati firm Crowley, Ahlers and Roth, where he handles Social Security, workers’ compensation and personal injury cases. “I’m still working for the poor and people that have been injured,” he says. “It just went right in line with why I had gone to law school—to try to help people.”