When Maureen Onyelobi begins online classes this fall at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, her studies will mark the nation's first example of an accredited law school educating an incarcerated student.
Onyelobi is one of eight women currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the state women's prison in Shakopee — her acceptance into the American Bar Association-accredited juris doctor program has been nearly three years in the making.
Onyelobi's historic acceptance follows a path forged by The Prison to Law Pipeline, an extension of an existing partnership between Mitchell Hamline and the criminal justice reform nonprofit, All Square.
The pipeline's first cohort of students features Onyelobi — the first and only juris doctorate scholar — and five paralegal students.
The mission is to help incarcerated legal scholars access ABA-accredited law degrees and ABA-approved paralegal degrees, according to Legal Revolution, a subsidiary of All Square.
"Though paralegal programs and law libraries are prevalent in most prisons across America, ABA-approved paralegal degrees are not, and, to our knowledge, there has never been an ABA-accredited law degree offered behind bars in the United States," the group's website states.
On Thursday, Anthony Niedwiecki, Mitchell Hamline's president and dean, and John Goeppinger, director and co-founder of Legal Revolution, drove to the state woman's prison in Shakopee to deliver the news, according to a press release from Mitchell Hamline.
“Mitchell Hamline has a long history of looking for ways to expand the idea of who gets to go to law school,”Niedwiecki stated in the announcement. “It’s important for people who are incarcerated to better understand the criminal justice system, and this is one important way to do that. Our students will also benefit from having Maureen in class with them.”
Onyelobi's conviction, and subsequent life sentence, relate to the murder of Anthony Fairbanks, a 23-year-old man shot and killed in south Minneapolis in 2014.
At the time of the murder, Fairbanks was a co-defendant in a federal drug case against Onyelobi's boyfriend, Maurice Wilson.
Wilson placed a phone call from jail to Onyelobi and another man they sold heroin with, David Johnson, in which he urged the pair to "take care of" Fairbanks, the Pioneer Press reports.
Onyelobi later lured Fairbanks outside his Minneapolis home and Johnson shot and killed him.
Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 40-year prison sentence, from which he could be released many years sooner.
In an affidavit, Johnson stated he'd never told Onyelobi about his intention to shoot Fairbanks and had no reason to believe she knew of his plans.
Onyelobi's appeals to have her conviction overturned have been repeatedly denied.
Onyelobi's case is often cited by reform advocates seeking to repeal what's known as Minnesota's felony murder law.
Under the law, prosecutors may bring first-degree murder charges against all accomplices to a felony-level crime that results in a murder, regardless of if the accomplice had any knowledge such violence might take place.