Project Innocence

For the BBC television drama, see The Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project
File:Logo of The Innocence Project.gif
Founded 1992
Founder(s) Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld
Headquarters
Website www.innocenceproject.org

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, and to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.[1] The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. To date, the Innocence Project has freed 311 wrongfully convicted people, including 18 who spent time on death row.[2]

Founding

The Innocence Project was established in the wake of a landmark study by the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate, in conjunction with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which found that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70% of wrongful convictions.[3] The original Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Scheck and Neufeld as part of the Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City. It became an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2003, but maintains strong institutional connections with Cardozo.[4] The current Executive Director of the Innocence Project is Madeline deLone.[5]

Mission

The Innocence Project primarily exonerates people for whom DNA evidence is available to be tested or retested. DNA testing is possible in 5 to 10 percent of criminal cases.[6] Other members of the Innocence Network also help to exonerate those in whose cases DNA testing is not possible.

In addition to working on behalf of those who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes throughout the United States, those working for the Innocence Project perform research and advocacy related to the causes of wrongful convictions.

Some of the Innocence Project's successes have resulted in rescuing innocent people from death row. The successes of the project have fueled American opposition to the death penalty and have likely been a factor in the decision by some American states to institute moratoria on judicial executions.[7]

In the decision of District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009), US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that post-conviction challenge "poses to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality better left to elected officials than federal judges." In a court opinion, another justice wrote that forensic science has "serious deficiencies". Roberts expressed a fear that post-conviction DNA testing risks "unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice." The law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote: "It might lead to a reasonably accurate one."[8]

Wrongful convictions

As of December 2011, 307 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 17 of whom had been sentenced to death.[2] Almost all (99%) of the convictions proven to be false were of males,[9] with minority groups also disproportionately represented (approximately 70%).[2] The National Registry of Exonerations lists 891 people who were convicted of a crime for which they were later exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence.[10] The following are some examples of notable exonerations:

  • In 2004, Darryl Hunt was exonerated after serving 19 and a half years in prison of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes.
  • In 2007, after an investigation begun by The Innocence Project, James Calvin Tillman was exonerated after serving 16.5 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. His sentence was 45 years.
  • Lynn DeJac is a Buffalo woman whose previous conviction of murder in 1994, was reversed on November 28, 2007 on the basis of DNA evidence. She had been convicted of murdering her daughter (Crystallynn Girard), on February 13, 1993.[1] According to the Innocence Project, she is the first woman to be exonerated of murdering someone on the basis of DNA evidence. Steven M. Cohen (Attorney) is now representing DeJac in her lawsuit against the state of New York. [11]
  • In 2007, Floyd Brown was exonerated for the murder of an 80 year old woman in Wadesboro, NC. In prison since 1993, Brown served 14 years in Dorothea Dix Hospital. Twenty nine at the time of the murder, Brown had the mental capacity of a 7 year old. There was no physical evidence to convict him, only a false confession written by a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent. The claim was that Brown dictated the confession to the SBI agent but given his mental state at the time, there is no possibility that he could have given such a detailed confession. Floyd was convicted solely on the false confession and was not given the opportunity to stand trial because he was ruled incompetent to stand trial. Because of the injustice Floyd Brown is in the process of suing the state of North Carolina.[12]
  • In December 2009, James Bain was exonerated by DNA testing for a kidnapping, burglary, and rape he did not commit. Bain's appeal had previously been denied four separate times. His 35-year imprisonment made him the longest-incarcerated victim of a wrongful conviction to be freed through DNA evidence.[13][14]
  • In June 2010, Barry Gibbs was awarded the largest civil rights settlement by the City of New York to date of $9.9 million.[15] He received an additional $1.9 million settlement from New York state in late 2009. He was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of Brooklyn prostitute Virginia Robertson based on coerced testimony by a witness during the investigation by NYPD detective Louis Eppolito. Gibbs's original sentence was 20 years to life for the murder, of which he served just under 19 years. Gibbs never expressed remorse for his crime to the parole board, on the grounds that he was innocent and had no remorse. Every two years at his review, the board denied his parole because of his lack of remorse. Gibbs was exonerated in 2006 with help from the Innocence Project. In addition, the conviction of former detective Eppolito for his sideline as a mob hit man and the change in testimony by a witness in Gibbs's case helped him.[16]
  • In September 2010, days before he was to be executed, Kevin Keith was granted clemency by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland,[17] thanks in part to Ohio's Innocent Project.[18][19]
  • In February 2010, Greg Taylor was exonerated for the murder of a North Carolina young female prostitute. Arrested in 1991 and convicted a few years later, Taylor served 17 years in prison. Taylor did cooperate with the police and even offered DNA samples and willing to take a polygraph test. Police charged Greg Taylor and Johnny Beck for the murder of the woman. Yet police wanted Taylor to incriminate Beck but he refused. With the help of Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center of Actual Innocence, Taylor was freed. Mumma was able to prove the lack of physical evidence towards Taylor and the flawed process. Also, the SBI failed to report all of their testing results during Taylor's original trial and misrepresented the evidence. Taylor describes this experience as "The perfect storm of bad luck."[12]

Work

In the history of the United States (as of June, 2011) there have been 307 post-conviction exonerations due to DNA testing.[2] According to the Innocence Project these statistics were found on those exonerated:

  • The average sentence served thirteen years.[2]
  • 70 percent exonerated are a part of minority groups.[2]
  • 40 percent of these DNA cases were able to find the actual person who committed the crime.[2]
  • About 50 percent of those exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated for their time in prison. The federal government, 27 states, and Washington D.C. have passed laws providing some level of financial compensation to wrongfully convicted people.[2]
  • The Innocence Project has had to close 22 percent of its cases because DNA evidence was missing or had been destroyed.[2]

There have been exoneration in Washington D.C and 35 states. There are innocence projects in the majority of the 50 states.[2]

New York City is where the Innocence Project originated, but it accepts cases from any part of the United States. The majority of clients that are helped are those who are of low socio-economic status and have used all possible legal options for justice. Many clients are hoping that DNA evidence will prove their innocence in their cases. With the emergence of DNA testing, those who have been wrongly convicted of a crime have been able to challenge their cases. The Innocence Project also works with the local, state and federal levels of law enforcement and legislators along with other programs to prevent further wrongful convictions.[1]

About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases.[20]

All potential clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not they are likely to be innocent. If they pass the process, the Innocence Project takes up their case. In roughly half of the cases that the Innocence Project takes on, the clients' guilt is reconfirmed by DNA testing. Of all the cases taken on by the Innocence Project, about 43% of clients were proven innocent, 42% were confirmed guilty, and evidence was inconclusive and not probative in 15% of cases. In about 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement officials identified the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that led to an exoneration.[21]

Funding

The Innocence Project receives 45 percent of its funding from individual contributions, 30 percent from foundations, 15 percent from an annual benefit dinner, 7 percent from the Cardozo School of Law (with which it is loosely affiliated), and the rest from corporations.[22]

Innocence Network

The Innocence Project is also a founder of the Innocence Network, an organization of law and journalism schools along with public defense offices that work together to help convicted felons prove their innocence.[1] 46 American states along with several other countries are a part of the network. In 2010, twenty nine people were exonerated worldwide from the work of the members of this organization.[23]

Worldwide

The Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network, which brings together a growing number of innocence organizations from across the United States. It includes members from other English-speaking common law countries—the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.[24]

In South Africa, the Wits Justice Project investigates South African incarcerations. In partnership with the Wits Law Clinic, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Julia Mashele Trust, and the US Innocence Project, the Justice Project investigates individual cases of prisoners wrongly convicted or awaiting trial.[25]

Causes

There are many reasons why wrongful convictions occur. The most common reason is false eyewitness identification, which played a role in more than 75 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by the Innocence Project. Often assumed to be incontrovertible, a growing body of evidence suggests that eyewitness identifications are unreliable.[26]

Unreliable or improper forensic science played a role in some 50 percent of Innocence Project cases. Scientific techniques such as bite-mark comparison, once widely used, are now known to be subjective. Many forensic science techniques also lack uniform scientific standards.[27]

In about 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent people were coerced or threatened into making incriminating statements or false confessions. Of the 292 people freed by the Innocence Project, 28 actually pled guilty to crimes they did not commit (usually to avoid a harsher sentence, or even the death penalty).[28]

Government misconduct, inadequate legal counsel, and the improper use of informants also contributed to many of the wrongful convictions since overturned by the Innocence Project

In popular culture

  • In the non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, John Grisham recounted the cases of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who were assisted on appeal by the Innocence Project and freed by DNA evidence, after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Debra Ann Carter.
  • The Exonerated (2002) is a play by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank about six people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, but were exonerated.
  • The Innocence Project was featured in the documentary After Innocence (2005).
  • The Innocence Project was discussed in a December 14, 2010 on the 9th episode season 2 of The Good Wife entitled "Nine Hours." Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck played himself in the episode, which was largely based on the actual Innocence Project case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Cary Agos, a recurring character on The Good Wife, is said to have worked for the Innocence Project after law school (and is a family friend of Scheck's).[29]
  • Conviction (2010), is a film about the exoneration of Kenneth Waters, who was a client of the Innocence Project. Hilary Swank plays Waters' sister Betty Anne, who went to college and law school to fight for his freedom, and Sam Rockwell plays Waters. Barry Scheck is portrayed by Peter Gallagher.
  • Janet Reno and her sister, Maggy Reno Hurchalla, donated the fees paid by being guest voices on The Simpsons episode "Dark Knight Court" to the Project.[30]

See also

Notes

External links

  • Innocence Project home page
  • The Innocence Network members page — a listing of Innocence Projects around the United States
  • Innocent Network UK
  • Times Online article about Innocence Projects in the UK
  • Irish: Tionscadal Neamhchiontachta na hÉireann)
  • Irish Times, Tuesday, May 26, 2009.
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