The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal clinic that originally focused only on cases where postconviction DNA testing of evidence could demonstrate an individual’s innocence. The Innocence Project was started by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where students worked (and still do) on cases involving a defendant’s innocence under supervision of a team of attorneys and clinic staff. Focusing invariably on indigent defendants, the Innocence Project typically enters into a case as a last resort, after an individual has exhausted all other legal avenues for relief.
As DNA technology became more accessible, other innocence projects began in law schools across the United States. By the end of 2006, innocence projects were operating at 40 law schools in every region of the United States. Increasingly, such projects broadened the scope of their investigation from only cases involving DNA testing to a wide array of cases involving other important indicators of a defendant’s innocence, including faulty eyewitness testimony and police or prosecutorial misconduct. The projects have been remarkably successful in proving innocence. Indeed, by August 2006, at least 183 people had been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, and literally hundreds more had been exonerated based on other types of evidence.
Although the empirical literature on wrongful convictions has grown exponentially in the wake of the innocence project movement of the past 15 years, social scientists began investigating the issue as early as 1932. Edwin Borchard’s classic, Convicting the Innocent: Sixty-Five Errors of Criminal Justice, provides fascinating documentation of wrongful convictions stemming from prosecutorial and police misconduct, ineffective counsel, racial discrimination, mistaken identification in eyewitness testimony, and perjury of witnesses. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, other studies of wrongful convictions, such as E. S. Gardner’s The Court of Last Resort of 1952, Frank and Frank’s Not Guilty of 1957, and Edward D. Radin’s classic The Innocents of 1964 documented similar findings.
The high-profile exonerations of 13 death row prisoners in Illinois in 2000 led to the creation of more innocence projects and more available funding for empirical analysis of wrongful convictions. Recent research on wrongful convictions provided new and important insight into this phenomenon. Sophisticated quantitative analyses of wrongful convictions discovered that the quality of appellate defense was an important and statistically significant predictor of whether or not a defendant was wrongfully convicted of a capital crime.
In the policy arena, innocence projects have recently made a significant impact on the development of national legislation—most notably the passage of the Innocence Protection Act of 2004 (IPA). Relying chiefly on the testimony of Barry Scheck and other leaders in the innocence project movement, the IPA provides rules and procedures for federal inmates applying for DNA testing. Specifically, IPA creates a Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, authorizes grants to states for improving their capital prosecution and capital defender programs, and provides funding to assist families of murder victims.
- Harmon, Talia. 2001. “Predictors of Miscarriages of Justice in Capital Cases.” Justice Quarterly 18:949-68.
- The Innocence Project. (https://www.innocenceproject.org/).
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