Despite successes, many challenges remain for Innocence Projects

Issue April 2005 By Kathleen M. O'Donnell

Today there are 156 Americans who have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Twelve of the exonerated were at one time on death row. Almost all of them had exhausted their appeals and post-conviction remedies. But for the DNA evidence, many of these people would have been executed. Because of the DNA evidence, these 156 people can now look at the stars on a clear night, they can enjoy holidays with friends and family members and they can once again be productive members of society.

In 1992, two individuals, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, saw the need to use modern science to help those whose causes were hopeless. That year, these crusaders began the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. This nonprofit legal clinic works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through post-conviction DNA testing. With every wrongful conviction, not only does an innocent person suffer unconscionably in prison or on death row, but the real perpetrator remains free to commit other crimes.

The Innocence Project also develops and implements reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. In October 2004, federal legislation was signed into law that includes major components of the Innocence Protection Act. The activity of this group spawned many other state- and region-based Innocence Projects. All of them are nonprofit legal clinics and criminal justice resource centers that work to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Most of their clients are the weakest among us - poor and forgotten and whose legal avenues for relief have been exhausted.

In 1993, our nation had one Innocence Project manned by a staff of two; today, more than 40 law schools, journalism schools and independent entities comprise the beginning of an "innocence project network" - assisting inmates trying to prove their innocence regardless of whether the cases involve biological evidence that can be subjected to testing.

At the MBA Annual Conference, we were privileged to hear from Barry Scheck, both a pioneer in the use of DNA techniques to defend the accused and one of the nation's strongest advocates of defendant and prisoner rights. Scheck introduced Calvin C. Johnson, Jr., who was released from prison on June 5, 1999, after having served more than 15 years of a life sentence for rape. Johnson was released because he had been exonerated by DNA evidence; his conviction had been based largely on flawed eyewitness identification.

Johnson's story was riveting. Unfortunately, Johnson's release, and the release of others who have been exonerated, is apparently not the end of the story. We also were privileged to have at the Annual Dinner five individuals exonerated because of the work of the New England Innocence Project. We invited these people to hear Johnson and to recognize them publicly for their courage and their perseverance. Not surprisingly, these gentlemen did not look like the other 850 people attending our dinner. Solely because of their looks, they were stopped and questioned by hotel security. While they may be free from prison, clearly they still are not free from the stereotyping and biases that caused many of them to be imprisoned in the first place. Sadly, while we have made great scientific strides, we have yet to tackle the real issues - racial profiling and bias against those who are different from us. These are challenges we must address now, not in the future.