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Woman serving life sentence in Shakopee to attend Mitchell Hamline law school

Maureen Onyelobi, who is serving a life sentence for murder with no chance of parole, will be the first incarcerated student in the country to attend a law school approved by the American Bar Association.

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Maureen Onyelobi
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The acceptance of Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s newest student was such a big deal that Dean Anthony Niedwiecki wanted to deliver the news in-person last week — on the grounds of the state women’s prison in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Maureen Onyelobi, who is serving a life sentence for murder with no chance of parole, will be the first incarcerated student in the country to attend a law school approved by the American Bar Association.

“Probably the highlight of my career,” Niedwiecki said of their visit. “She was just so shocked and just so excited she didn’t even know what to say at first.”

Onyelobi, 36, aspired to go to law school before she was arrested in 2014. Last year, she became the first woman to take the LSAT — the law school admissions test — while incarcerated.

To admit her, St. Paul-based Mitchell Hamline had to get a variance from the ABA that will let her attend classes entirely online. Under that variance, the school can admit up to two incarcerated students each of the next five years.

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Niedwiecki said Onyelobi “exceeded our minimum standards of getting into law school, so it wasn’t a close call.”

And while Onyelobi may never get out of prison, the dean is confident her education will benefit herself and others.

“Knowledge is power. If you can give them that knowledge, then they can be more effective advocates,” Niedwiecki said. “I also think this is great for our students, because the students that are in the classroom are going to be able to hear from somebody who’s a part of the system already.”

Murder case

Onyelobi had been selling heroin with her boyfriend, Maurice Wilson, and another man, David Johnson, when Wilson was arrested on federal drug charges in March 2014, according to court records.

Wilson later placed a phone call from jail to Onyelobi and Johnson, in which he urged them to “take care of” Anthony Fairbanks, who was Wilson’s co-defendant in the federal case.

Later that day, Onyelobi lured Fairbanks outside his Minneapolis home, where Johnson shot and killed him.

A Hennepin County jury convicted Onyelobi as an accomplice to first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and got a 40-year prison sentence.

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Onyelobi later argued she didn’t know Johnson was going to shoot Fairbanks, but the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld her conviction.

“A lot of times I’ll replay that night, but there’s nothing I can do. All I can do is move forward,” Onyelobi told WCCO-TV last year. “ Everybody deserves a second chance .”

The Minneapolis nonprofit All Square, which supports incarcerated people, helped make Onyelobi’s law school admission happen. Its subsidiary, the Legal Revolution, centers the expertise of those most impacted by the law and enables them to become agents within it.

“From an absence of liberty comes an interest in mastering the law not out of curiosity, or as an academic exercise, or strictly in pursuit of a career,” Elizir Daris, a former inmate and co-founder of the Legal Revolution, wrote in a column in the Hennepin County Bar Association’s publication. “Learning the rudiments of law is a vital vehicle for freedom.”

Mitchell Hamline, which is known for its online, night and weekend classes, also has led numerous initiatives that support the incarcerated, including a clinic that assists people as they’re released from custody.

“This may only be one person, but this is one person opening the door for so many others,” Niedwiecki said. “That cumulative effect is going to be massive for our justice system in Minnesota, and I hope we’re not the last school that does this.”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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