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Innocence Project credited with expanding awareness of DNA testing in law enforcement


By Raju Chebium Correspondent

In this story:

Scheck's comments

Limits of the Innocence Project

Praise from victims-rights groups


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In 1992, when DNA testing for law-enforcement purposes was in its infancy, attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the Innocence Project to help wrongly convicted prison inmates prove their innocence through DNA tests and leave prison.

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Working out of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, they represented for free inmates with legitimate innocence claims, helping them throughout the process, from getting their DNA tested and matched to the DNA found at the crime scene, to securing their release from prison.

Scheck and Neufeld faced formidable hurdles from the outset. Many law enforcement agencies either did not collect DNA from crime-scenes or destroyed samples soon after the suspect was arrested either out of lack of knowledge about DNA technology or intentionally. Additionally, most states to this day do not allow inmates to prove their innocence after their arrest.

Yet, the attorneys persisted -- and carved a reputation for themselves as top legal experts in the field of post-conviction DNA testing. Scheck especially gained a reputation as a DNA expert through his work in high-profile cases such as the criminal trials of O.J. Simpson and British nanny Louise Woodward.

Today, advocates of post-conviction DNA praise the Innocence Project as the nation's first major effort to give inmates access to DNA and educate the public about the importance of DNA testing in ensuring that the criminal-justice system works fairly.

They also credit the Innocence Project with greatly helping convince law-enforcement authorities and federal and state politicians that DNA is an important crime-fighting tool.

Since 1992, 78 convicts have been exonerated nationwide after DNA tests excluded them, Neufeld said. The Innocence Project represented or served as co-counsel in 45 of those cases, he said. And of the 78 who were exonerated, 10 had been convicted of capital crimes, he said.

"Had it not been for the DNA testing done by, and in some ways, forced by the Innocence Project, these people would still be incarcerated or on Death Row," said Wayne Smith, executive director of the Justice Project, a Washington-based group that works to overturn the death penalty. "The Innocence Project has helped save lives."

Smith said the Innocence Project "has been a major voice" that has called to the attention of the public, prosecutors, judges and others that DNA is a vital tool to be used in the pursuit of criminal justice.

Scheck and Neufeld, who are working on dozens of cases, also are pushing for Congress to pass the Innocence Protection Act, which would require states to pay for DNA tests for inmates who could prove their innocence. Advocates vow to introduce the measure next year, after Congress adjourned for this year without acting on it.

While the Innocence Project currently focuses on post-conviction DNA testing, the group's bigger goal is "nothing less than the complete overhaul of the criminal justice system with a new awareness of how to make it more reliable," Neufeld said.

The Innocence Project is handling 200 cases where the inmates may be innocent and is reviewing an additional 1,000 cases, according to the project's World Wide Web site.

Two dozen law schools across the nation have also set up Innocence Projects to handle the increasing caseload, Neufeld said.

The Cardozo project has a staff of six including the two attorneys and relies on monetary and in-kind donations to operate.

Scheck and Neufeld, in collaboration with journalist Jim Dwyer, also have written a book "Actual Innocence," which deals with post-conviction DNA testing and other reasons innocent people may be convicted, such as mistaken eyewitnesses and incompetent counsel.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the organic chemical of complex molecular structure and is found in human cells. The DNA code contains genetic information for the transmission of inherited traits, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Web site. Except for identical twins, each person has a unique DNA structure.

Scheck's comments

Scheck, a longtime professor at the Cardozo law school, part of Yeshiva University, described the core mission of Innocence Project to the San Diego, California, Union-Tribune in August.

"We have standards, very simple ones," he said. "And that is if you can do a DNA test on an old case that raises a reasonable probability that someone that somebody was wrongfully convicted or sentenced, then we take those cases. But we don't take those that are in any way frivolous."

"In so many instances, doing this DNA testing not only exonerates an innocent person but also helps identify the person who really committed the crime before that person goes out and commits more," Scheck told the newspaper.

Limits of the Innocence Project

Elisabeth Semel, director of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project, said the Innocence Project is limited in what it can do.

The problems with the criminal justice system are wide and deep, she said, including factors such as disparate treatment of minorities and inadequate legal representation.

Further, in many instances DNA evidence has either been destroyed or is simply not available at the crime scene, she said.

So people should not consider DNA a panacea, and inmates who are guilty should not mistakenly believe that somehow a DNA test could lead to their release, she said.

"Innocence is kind of the hook into the heart of the American public. It is very emotionally appealing," Semel said, adding the Innocence Project has a long list of cases in which it can do nothing even if the person is indeed innocent. "The public has a gross misconception for whom DNA can provide the key to the cell door."

Praise from victims-rights groups

Victims-rights groups praised the two attorneys for helping innocent people walk out of prison, but expressed concern that DNA test results might be misused.

It is important to make sure that DNA evidence is relevant to the case, explained Wendy Murphy, a Boston lawyer who heads the Victim Advocacy and Research Group and edits the journal Sexual Assault Report.

Scheck frequently has said DNA results are important in identifying rapists or proving the innocence of those wrongly convicted of sex crimes, Murphy said.

However, the presence of someone else's DNA in a woman does not mean that the man convicted of the crime is innocent, Murphy cautioned. The presence of "foreign" DNA could just mean that the woman had sex with a different person before or after being raped, Murphy said.

"Should the jury even hear there is foreign DNA? The Barry Schecks of the world will try to come up with reasons why jury must hear about foreign DNA" as a way of proving their clients' innocence, Murphy said. "Then it becomes a trial about the woman's sexual behavior," Murphy said.

"We are so awestruck (with DNA) that we don't take a moment to step back and say, 'Gosh, does it really matter in this case?' There is no such thing as defense at any cost," Murphy said. "We need not be blinded by the idea that DNA is conclusive on the question of guilt or innocence."

Susan Howley, public-policy director at the National Center for Victims of Crime, said no one wants innocent people to go to jail.

"Frivolous" requests for DNA tests should not be allowed, she said.

"What is troublesome is there are some proposals that post-conviction DNA testing be available to anyone who requests them," Howley said. "Anytime you reopen a case ... you do inflict additional trauma on victims and survivors."

State DNA laws help fight crime, but critics cite privacy concerns
October 24, 2000
San Diego first to offer inmates free DNA tests
July 27, 2000
Kirk Bloodsworth, twice convicted of rape and murder, exonerated by DNA evidence
June 20, 2000
New York to expand DNA testing of convicts
October 20, 1999

Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law
Innocence Project Act
The Justice Project
Victim Advocacy and Research Group
National Center for Victims of Crime
ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project
DNA Fingerprinting definition

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