|Founder||Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld|
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. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. To date, the work of the Innocence Project has led to the freeing of 325 wrongfully convicted people, including 18 who spent time on death row.
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. 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. The current Executive Director of the Innocence Project is Madeline deLone.
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. 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.
In the decision of District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009), US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that post-conviction challenge "poses questions 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 an opinion 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."
As of June 2014, 316 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 18 of whom had been sentenced to death. Almost all (99%) of the convictions proven to be false were of males, with minority groups also disproportionately represented (approximately 70%). The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,383 convicted felons who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence. According to a study published in 2014, more than 4% of persons sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 are probably innocent. 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.
- In 2007, Lynn DeJac's 1994 conviction was reversed on the basis of DNA evidence. She had been convicted of murdering her daughter Crystallynn Girard on February 13, 1993. She was the first woman to be exonerated of murder on the basis of DNA evidence.
- In 2007, Floyd Brown was exonerated for the murder of an 80-year-old woman in Wadesboro, NC. Brown had served 14 years in Dorothea Dix Hospital and had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He had been convicted solely on the basis of a false confession by a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent, who claimed that Brown had dictated the confession to him; however, Brown's mental state precluded that possibility. Floyd sued the state of North Carolina following his release.
- 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.
- In June 2010, Barry Gibbs was awarded the largest civil rights settlement by the City of New York to date of $9.9 million. 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, who was later convicted for serving as a mob hit man on the side. Gibbs's original sentence was 20 years to life, of which he served just under 19 years. Gibbs had been repeatedly denied parole because of his lack of admission of guilt. Gibbs was exonerated in 2006 with help from the Innocence Project.
- In September 2010, days before he was to be executed, Kevin Keith was granted clemency by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, thanks in part to the Ohio Innocence Project.
- In February 2010, Greg Taylor was exonerated for the murder of a North Carolina prostitute after serving 17 years in prison. Taylor had been convicted without physical evidence, and the SBI failed to report all of their testing results during Taylor's original trial. Taylor described his experience as "the perfect storm of bad luck."
In the history of the United States (as of June, 2011) there have been 307 post-conviction exonerations due to DNA testing. According to the Innocence Project these statistics were found on those exonerated:
- The average sentence served thirteen years.
- 70 percent exonerated are a part of minority groups.
- 40 percent of these DNA cases were able to find the actual person who committed the crime.
- 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.
- The Innocence Project has had to close 22 percent of its cases because DNA evidence was missing or had been destroyed.
There have been exonerations in Washington D.C and 35 states. There are innocence projects in the majority of the 50 states.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
- 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.
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
- Northern California Innocence Project
- Capital punishment in the United States
- Innocent prisoner's dilemma
- List of miscarriage of justice cases
- Medill Innocence Project, Illinois
- Miscarriage of justice
- Michael Morton (Criminal Justice)
- Phantom of Heilbronn
- The Justice Project (Australia)
- Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (Canada)
- Other persons exonerated by Innocence Project efforts
- Cornelius Dupree, exonerated by the Innocence Project
- Douglas Echols, exonerated by the Innocence Project
- Benjamin LaGuer, defended by the Innocence Project
- Anthony McKinney, considered for the Medill Innocence Project
- Anthony Porter, exonerated by the Medill Innocence Project
- Ken Wyniemko, exonerated by the Innocence Project
- Ryan Ferguson, defended by Missouri Innocence Project
- Clarence Elkins, defended by Ohio Innocence Project
- Investigating Innocence
- "About Us". Innocence Project. Retrieved 2011-12-09.
- "Know the Cases". Innocence Project. Retrieved 2011-12-09.
- "Facts about Wrongful Convictions >>Mistaken Eyewitness Identifications". Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
- "Frequently Asked Questions". Innocence Project. Retrieved 2011-12-09.
- "Staff Directory". The Innocence Project.
- "The Innocence Project". New York, NY: Innocence Project. 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-06.
- Rosenthal, Brian (2011). "Death Penalty Moratoria". Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. Retrieved 2012-06-06.
- Lundin, Leigh (2009-06-28). "Dark Justice". Capital Punishment. Criminal Brief.
- "Female DNA Exonerees Represent Only a Few of the Women Who Have Been Wrongfully Convicted Nationwide". The Innocence Project. Retrieved 2012-01-03.
- "The National Registry of Exonerations". Michigan Law and Northwestern Law.
- "More than 4% of death row inmates wrongly convicted, study says". Los Angeles Times.
- By Lou Michel. "DeJac expects worst from state in suit". Web.archive.org. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
- Rogue Justice. CNN. Atlanta. 30 Jan. 2011. Television
- "US man freed by DNA evidence after 35 years in prison". BBC News. 2009-12-18. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
- "Man exonerated, freed from prison after 35 years". CNN. December 17, 2009. Retrieved December 22, 2009.
- Marzulli, John; McShane, Larry (2010-06-03). "Barry Gibbs, man framed by 'mafia cop,' gets $9.9M settlement for 18-year prison sentence". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 6, 2010.
- JOYCE PURNICK, "METRO MATTERS; 19 Years Late, Freedom Has A Bitter Taste", New York Times, 3 Oct 2005, accessed 14 Aug 2010
- Driehaus, Bob (2010-09-02). "Ohio's Governor Spares Life of a Death Row Inmate". New York Times (New York). p. A13.
- Lundin, Leigh (2010-08-29). "Death and Destruction". Capital Punishment. Criminal Brief.
- Welsh-Huggins, Andrew (2010-09-03). "Kevin Keith: Clemency overrides unanimous parole board decision". Mansfield News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio).
- "How many people write to you each year?". The Innocence Project.
- "How often do DNA tests prove innocence in your cases? Does testing ever prove guilt? — The Innocence Project". Innocenceproject.org. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
- "Funding". The Innocence Project.
- "The Innocence Network". The Innocence Network. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
- "Mission Statement". Innocence Network. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
- Gordin, Jeremy (August 2009). "The Justice Project". Witwatersrand, SA: Wits Journalism Programme. Retrieved 2011-01-04.
- "Eyewitness Misidentification". The Innocence Project. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- "Improper Forensics". The Innocence Project. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- "False Confessions". The Innocence Project. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- "Scheck on "The Good Wife"". The Innocence Project Blog. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- "Article on The Innocence Project Web site detailing "The Simpsons" episode and dedication". Innocenceproject.org. 2013-03-15. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
- The Innocence Project home page
- The Innocence Network's projects
- Times Online article about Innocence Projects in the UK
- Griffith College Dublin – Innocence Project in Ireland (Irish: Tionscadal Neamhchiontachta na hÉireann)
- "On the Trail of the Innocent" by Michelle McDonagh, Irish Times, Tuesday, May 26, 2009.
- The Innocence Project page on BestFutureLawyers.com