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Ford Center for the Fine Arts

Jessica Van Dyke ’05


Major: Political Science

Over 20 years after first stepping onto Knox’s campus, Van Dyke is now the co-founder of the Tennessee Innocence Project.

For Jessica Van Dyke ’05, the opportunity to go to college was a chance to see the world. She grew up in a small Kansas town and wanted to find a college that would give her opportunities to explore. She described her tour of Knox as giving a “warm, inviting feeling” and decided her next step in life would be in Illinois.

“It felt like a place with infinite freedom. It felt new and cozy,” Van Dyke said.

Now, over 20 years after first stepping onto Knox’s campus, Van Dyke is the co-founder of the Tennessee Innocence Project, an organization that investigates and litigates innocence claims of Tennessee prisoners with the goal of exonerating them.

Van Dyke’s journey toward a law career started with the experiences she was granted by Knox faculty. She says professors such as Lane Sunderland, Chancie Ferris Booth professor emeritus of political science, pushed her to meet new people and try different things. She was always impressed by faculty like Sunderland, who truly showcased their love for the College.

Bob Seibert, the late Robert W. Murphy Chair in Political Science, also played an integral role in pushing her to apply to law school and, later, in helping her navigate the real world. “I feel confident that I wouldn’t be where I am today without Bob,” she said.

Van Dyke majored in political science and later attended Vanderbilt University for a master’s in political science, while earning her law degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2011.

Following law school, Van Dyke was hired by a small civil litigation law firm in Nashville. She says the firm reminded her of the Knox community in a lot of ways: a small, tight-knit group that cared about each other. As an attorney, Van Dyke was exposed to many types of law practice, including post-conviction law. She remained with the firm for eight years.

In 2018, a former professor reached out to her about a new opportunity. Tennessee needed a full-time state-wide innocence organization and needed someone with post-conviction law experience to help. Van Dyke met with the team and, after a year of planning, the Tennessee Innocence Project opened in February 2019.

Van Dyke now works alongside a team of attorneys to sort through applications from inmates. Since opening the office, they have received over 500 letters requesting support. While it might be easy to assume that all prisoners are convinced of their own innocence, Van Dyke says that isn’t the case.

“Many reach out simply trying to reduce their sentence on simple charges,” Van Dyke said. “Normally, it’s a perfect storm that leads to wrongful convictions. We consider many different factors and red flags when we sort through applications.”

Van Dyke says the group’s success isn’t measured by exonerations, but rather by the hope and assistance given to those fighting for innocence.

“There is so much appreciation, so much hope. I feel so grateful to be able to work with people and find the information needed to prove their innocence,” she said.

Van Dyke’s team has fully exonerated four people since opening the branch. This is on top of the fundraising, general legal advising, and more that the team does on a daily basis. She is currently working toward opening a second office in Memphis, which will employ four additional lawyers.

Van Dyke sees her time at Knox as instrumental in providing her with the courage to step into this role. She says the encouragement she received from faculty and peers alike to believe that anything was possible has been fundamental in her career.

“Nothing ever felt impossible, and that was a great foundation,” Van Dyke said. “Knox helps you see that you can become whatever you want, but you have to figure out how to make it happen. I’ll always remember that one line from Stephen Colbert’s 2006 Knox commencement address:  ‘Just say yes and see what happens next.’”

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Printed on Monday, April 22, 2024