In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, in conjunction with Yeshiva University’s Benjamin. N. Cardozo Law School, founded the Innocence Project. In the 1980s, as they worked on the case of Marion Coakley, a man who was wrongly convicted of rape and robbery, Scheck and Neufeld realized the far-reaching implications of using DNA testing to either incarcerate or exonerate people who were convicted of crimes. “If DNA technology could prove people guilty of crimes, it could also prove that people who had been wrongfully convicted were innocent,” Scheck and Neufeld wrote on their project’s website. Thus, they began the Innocence Project with the mission to “free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”
The project began with a small team of lawyers, volunteers, and students at Cardozo Law School, who took on groundbreaking legal cases and used DNA testing to free people who were wrongly convicted. These people were convicted either due to eyewitness misidentification, misapplication of forensic science, false confessions, incentivized witnesses, government misconduct, and inadequate defense. At the time, there were no U.S. laws supporting the right to access post-conviction DNA testing. Therefore, each exoneration case often included much legal work, as lawyers struggled to pass legal hurdles that limited post-conviction DNA access. As a result, the Innocence Project has caused important legal reforms, ensuring access to post-conviction DNA testing and evidence retention. Moreover, the Innocence Project also advocates for laws compensating people who were wrongly incarcerated.
As of 2017, the Innocence Project has exonerated 351 people through DNA technology; in 151 cases it has also identified alternative perpetrators through DNA testing. The Innocence Project’s website features the stories of innocent people who were recently exonerated, often after years of living in prison. One blatant trend that the Innocence Project has called attention to, and continues to fight against, is the reality that the majority of wrongly incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are part of minority groups. Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project Policy Director explained, “Wrongful convictions are caused by both systemic flaws in our criminal justice and by external variables, including subtle factors that subconsciously affect who we perceive as guilty or innocent, and how people conduct investigations.” Saloom explained, “These human factors mean race has an impact in our courts.” For example, one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification; in more than half of the misidentification cases addressed by the Innocence Project, the witness and wrongfully convicted perpetrator have been of different races. According to information released in 2010, 172 of 254 wrongfully convicted people were either black or Latino.
Tzivya Beck, a Stern graduate who hopes to pursue a career in law expressed the importance of the Innocence Project to The Observer. “Knowing that there is an organization like this, which is committed to preventing injustices within criminal justice system, gives me more confidence in the justice system as a whole. In many cases, racism and discrimination play a big role in these injustices as well, which makes the Innocence Project even important in exonerating those against whom the justice system had been biased,” Beck stated. “In a country that is continuing to heal from centuries of slavery, remnants of these injustices within the justice system itself need to be rectified. I am thankful that the Innocence Project plays a part in this important social justice initiative,” she concluded.
Adding another perspective, Professor Adina Levine, who teaches a course in Comparative American and Talmudic Law at Stern explained, “The findings from the Innocence Project raise interesting questions that should make us question the efficacy of our legal system. For example, the Innocence Project’s research calls into doubt the reliability of eyewitness testimony and brings up the issue of false confessions, as many of the wrongful convictions were based on faulty eyewitness or false confessions – themes that have a direct analog in Talmudic law,” an issue she discusses in her class.
In 2004, the Innocence Project became a non-profit organization, though it continues its close ties to the Cardozo Law School. According to its website, in just two decades, the Innocence Project has “helped restore liberty to hundreds of innocent people and reformed almost as many laws and judicial practices, protecting millions more.” On the celebration of the Innocence Project’s 25th year, founder Barry Scheck stated, “What makes the Innocence Project so effective is that it taps into something on a very spiritual level. It is this whole struggle that our clients and their families engage in, which is to overcome injustice.”