Dean Anthony Niedwiecki wanted to give the news in person last week, on the grounds of the state women’s jail in Shakopee, because the acceptance of Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s newest student was such a huge event.
Maureen Onyelobi, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of release for murder, will be the first jailed student in the country to attend an American Bar Association-approved law school.
Their visit was “perhaps the pinnacle of my career,” Niedwiecki added. “She was so surprised and overjoyed that she didn’t know what to say at first.”
Before her incarceration in 2014, Onyelobi, 36, intended to attend law school. She was the first woman to take the LSAT (law school entrance test) while jailed last year.
Mitchell Hamline University in St. Paul had to obtain a variance from the ABA to allow her to attend classes fully online in order to enroll her. The school can enroll up to two jailed students each year for the next five years under that exception.
Onyelobi “exceeded our minimal criterion of getting into law school, therefore it wasn’t a close choice,” according to Niedwiecki.
While Onyelobi may never be released, the dean is optimistic that her education will help her and others.
“Knowledge is a powerful tool. If you can provide them with that information, they will be more effective advocates,” Niedwiecki added. “I also believe this is beneficial to our children since pupils in the classroom will be able to hear from someone who is already a part of the system.”
According to court papers, Onyelobi was selling heroin with her lover, Maurice Wilson, and another guy, David Johnson, when Wilson was arrested on federal narcotics charges in March 2014.
Wilson later called Onyelobi and Johnson from prison, pleading with them to “take care of” Anthony Fairbanks, Wilson’s co-defendant in the federal case.
Onyelobi enticed Fairbanks outside his Minneapolis house later that day, when Johnson shot and murdered him.
Onyelobi was found guilty of first-degree murder as an accomplice by a Hennepin County jury, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.
Johnson pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Onyelobi subsequently claimed she was unaware Johnson was about to shoot Fairbanks, but her conviction was affirmed by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“I’ll repeat that night a lot, but there’s nothing I can do.” Last year, Onyelobi told WCCO-TV, “All I can do is go on.” “Everyone is entitled to a second opportunity.”
All Square, a Minneapolis-based group that aids jailed persons, assisted Onyelobi in getting into law school. Its subsidiary, the Legal Revolution, gathers the knowledge of people who are most affected by the law and empowers them to act as change agents.
In a commentary in the Hennepin County Bar Association’s journal, Elizir Daris, a former convict and co-founder of the Legal Revolution, stated, “From an absence of liberty comes an interest in studying the law not out of curiosity, or as an intellectual exercise, or purely in pursuit of a job.” “Knowing the fundamentals of the law is essential for liberty.”
Mitchell Hamline University, which is recognized for its online, evening, and weekend programs, has also spearheaded a number of projects to help the jailed, including a clinic that helps inmates transition out of detention.
“This may only be one person,” Niedwiecki added, “but this is one person opening the door for so many more.” “That cumulative effect will be tremendous for Minnesota’s judicial system, and I hope we aren’t the last school to do this.”