Q: Can you give a little educational and legal background about yourself?
A: I studied biological anthropology in college and then received a masters degree in public health at Harvard. After about ten years of working in jails and public health in New York City, including positions at the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Board of Correction (the oversight agency for the City jails), and as a clinic administrator at Rikers Island, I went to New York University Law School, where I earned a JD in 1994.
I worked as a civil rights attorney at Children’s Rights, Inc., and at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, before leaving litigation, and joining the Innocence Project as its Executive Director in March, 2004.
Q: What inspired you to enter the legal profession?
A: I worked as a health administrator on Rikers Island and at Spofford, New York’s Secure Juvenile Detention facility, and I developed and tried to enforce standards for conditions of confinement in the City jails. I learned two things. First, these institutions are very damaging and harm everyone connected with them, prisoners, security staff, and civilian staff, including health professionals. Second, I learned how useful the law could be in changing the unconstitutional conditions that people were subjected to in jails and prisons in this country. I went to law school hoping to be better able to work to change these institutions.
Q: You are the executive director of the Innocence Project in New York. How did you get involved with the project?
A: After about 10 years of litigation, I decided that I wanted to go back to work as an administrator. At the time I started to look for a non-litigation legal job, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck were looking for an Executive Director for the Innocence Project. I met Peter and Barry, and the staff at the Innocence Project, and was excited about the work they did. What could be more rewarding than helping to get people out of prison, using what we learn from the exonerations to improve criminal justice and working with wonderful people to do it?
Q: For those who are unaware of the Innocence Project, will you explain what it does?
A: Since 1992, the Innocence Project ("IP") has worked to provide pro bono post-conviction legal assistance to persons whose claims of innocence might be demonstrably proven by DNA testing. For over ten years, the IP's groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free the innocent has done more than just open the prison gates for these individual exonerees. It has also provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but arise from systemic defects that can be explicitly identified and addressed.
Thus, the IP has spawned a national innocence movement -- a network of more than 30 "innocence projects" across the country -- unprecedented in its ability to bring together Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, prosecutors and defense attorneys. The IP in New York and our colleagues throughout the United States are working harder than ever to free the staggering numbers of innocent persons who remain incarcerated, and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment so that the number of wrongful convictions will be significantly reduced.
Q: What is the history of the Innocence Project?
A: The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ("the IP") was founded in 1992 by Professor Barry C. Scheck and civil rights lawyer Peter J. Neufeld. The IP began as a clinical program at Cardozo involving a handful of law students seeking to assist prisoners whose longstanding claims of innocence, the IP directors knew, could be proved or disproved through what was then a newly-emerging forensic technology called DNA typing. Since 1992 the IP has transformed from a legal clinic with a staff of 3 to a nationally-recognized non-profit with a staff of over 20 and two dozen volunteer law students.
Q: Do you know from where the inspiration came for Scheck and Neufeld to start the Innocence Project?
A: As I understand it, the work evolved naturally from their criminal defense work, and once they proved innocence using DNA, the requests began to flow and the need to represent people was compelling. The pivotal moment occurred during their collaboration to exonerate Marion Coakley, who had been wrongly convicted of murder. They realized and demonstrated that obvious actual innocence could be tragically shadowed by legal and scientific mishandlings. Their subsequent series of collaborations to assist the wrongly convicted became the Innocence Project. For the best account of this, it’s probably worth reading the book they wrote with Jim Dwyer about the early cases, Actual Innocence.
Q: What kind of training and oversight do the law students who handle the cases receive?
A: Twenty-one law students from Cardozo spend a full year working in the Innocence Project as part of the school’s clinical program. They work directly under the supervision of one of our three staff attorneys, attend a weekly seminar with Barry and/or Peter or other distinguished colleagues in the field, and participate regularly in case conferences. The training, like much in the field of clinical education, is a combination of classroom learning and practical experience. The students are a vital part of the team that represents the Innocence Project clients. Since I arrived at the Innocence Project, I have been impressed by their dedication and talents.
Q: When a convicted felon contacts the Innocence Project and says they are innocent, how is that case screened?
A: Our Intake Department has grown in the last year and a half. Our Case Director has a staff of 3 case coordinators and 3 case assistants. Each month, an average of between 150 and 250 people introduce themselves to us in letters. The Intake Department processes all letters in the order in which we receive them. A letter from a prisoner or a prisoner’s advocate(s) typically initiates a several-step evaluation process.
Usually we ask potential clients to answer a questionnaire that gives us basic and critical information about the conviction. The final step is to ask for documents that support the case that DNA evidence should be available and would be proof of innocence. Evaluations, at every step, are done with our strict criteria in mind: we handle cases where post-conviction DNA testing can yield conclusive proof of innocence.
Q: Do you have statistics on the per cent of those who are screened and then declined because the evidence does not refute the conviction?
A: We are in the process of gathering better statistics about this, but we do know that many clients for whom there should be DNA evidence can not ever prove their innocence because the evidence has been destroyed. One of the important reforms pushed for by the Innocence Project is to have states impose mandatory evidence preservation rules. It is an awful tragedy when someone comes to us with a plea of innocence and we can not help them prove their innocence because the evidence has been lost or destroyed.
Q: I have read that this Innocence Project started a movement of other innocence projects throughout the US. How many are there to date? Are they all student law clinics?
A: Barry and Peter are responsible, along with some of their colleagues, for motivating, encouraging, and probably pushing many people across the country to start projects to help prove that many innocent people have been convicted. There are almost forty projects that we know about across the country that do this work. The majority is based at law schools, but there are also programs based at schools of journalism, free standing non-profits, and units of public defender organizations that have taken on innocence cases as a special aspect of their work.
There are also an increasing number of groups dedicated to providing services for exonerated men and women who have been exonerated and released from prison. It is all part of a growing movement.
Q: How many innocents have been exonerated through this and similar innocence projects?
A: Since 1989, we are aware of 159 men and women who have been exonerated by DNA after all of their traditional state appeals have been exhausted. There are other men and women who have been exonerated on other grounds, including that the real perpetrator has confessed or witnesses recant their testimony, among other grounds.
Q: What is the typical amount of time spent on a case from first contact to exoneration?
A: There is no typical case, although the cases take many years, on average. Every project has different criteria for accepting cases. At the Innocence Project we accept cases when we believe that there should be evidence in the case that could be tested and if tested would be critical to a determination of innocence or guilt. Therefore, our first task when we take on a client is generally finding the evidence or determining if it exists. Many jurisdictions do not keep careful track of old evidence. Through hard work, and a little bit of luck, we have often found evidence when the jurisdiction believed that none could be found. We can keep a case open for many years searching for evidence.
Sometimes prosecutors’ resistance and the absence of clear State laws allowing post-conviction DNA testing impede the process. In 1982, our client Wilton Dedge was wrongly convicted of sexual assault, battery and burglary in Florida. Mr. Dedge contacted the Innocence Project in 1994, and we filed a motion for DNA testing in 1996. Because Florida had no law on its books expressly providing for access to post-conviction DNA testing, it took four years for the courts to grant the testing. It took another year for the tests, which proved him innocent, to be carried out.
In 2001, Florida passed a law to allow postconviction testing. Incredibly, that same year, the State of Florida then argued that Mr. Dedge could not use the new DNA test results in court because he had requested it prior to their passing of the law. The State continued its opposition for three years, at one point admitting in court that they would oppose Dedge’s release even if they knew that he was absolutely innocent. Mr. Dedge was exonerated in 2004—eight years after he initially requested testing, and after he served twenty-two years in prison for crimes he did not commit.
Q: The Innocence Project has shown that the criminal justice system is broken. What does the Innocence Project see as the major ways to make the system more reliable?
The Innocence Project supports an innocence reform agenda which is meant to prevent the causes of wrongful convictions. Those reforms include lineup and photo-array procedures to reduce mistaken eyewitness identifications; crime lab reform to address the problems of junk science and errors in crime lab results; video recording of custodial interrogations to help identify false confessions; innocence commissions to investigate what went wrong in proven wrongful conviction cases; and compensation relief for the exonerated. We also work to establish the right that prisoners have to prove their innocence post-conviction by DNA. To date there are 31 states that have such DNA access laws.
Q: Should states set up commissions to take over what the clinics have started?
A: We really see these as two different efforts. Innocence Commissions are designed to look at cases where there have been exonerations, learn from the mistakes that led to the tragedy of an innocent person being convicted, and take those lessons and work to institute reform to prevent further wrongful convictions.
The North Carolina Commission on Actual Innocence and the Avery Commission in Wisconsin are two good examples of Innocence Commissions that have looked seriously at the causes of specific wrongful convictions.
Clinics or projects and dedicated lawyers will still be needed to help prove the claims of innocent people who have already been convicted despite their innocence.
Q: Does the Innocence Project take a position on the death penalty?
A: We focus our work on the fact that there are numerous, serious flaws in the criminal justice system, which we see time and time again in the cases where DNA exonerates a convicted person. These flaws create a serious risk of executing innocent people. Innocent men on death row have had their lives saved because of the work of the Innocence Project. Until the government has corrected those flaws in the criminal justice system, executing potential innocents is too great a risk to take. We believe that government funds are better spent correcting the wrongs we know exist.
Q: Has research been conducted to determine whether the American public is getting the message?
A: Many public opinion polls have shown that people are very concerned about flaws in the system, wrongful convictions, and the possibility of executing innocent people. The Innocence Project, however, has not specifically conducted such research. Given the growing tendency of jurisdictions to adopt the specific reforms that we have identified, we believe that there is a growing awareness of the importance of these issues. An important part of the Innocence Project’s mission is to increase that awareness.