Justice for All: Innocence Projects in More Than 40 States Work Hard to Overturn Wrongful Convictions and Expose Systematic Errors and Official Misconduct

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In 1998, Anthony Porter was literally a dead man walking. He had been convicted of a 1982 double murder and was on Illinois' death row. Both the Illinois and U.S. supreme courts had turned away his appeals for a new trial, and he came within 48 hours of execution. However, in 1999, he was found innocent after the actual killer gave a videotaped confession to two journalism students of the Innocence Project (IP), which has a strong claim to be the most successful example of student activism since the Civil Rights Movement.

The first IP was founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The original goal was to free people whose innocence could be proven using DNA. Today, there are more than 50 IPs and affiliates in more than 40 states, as well as in Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. Most are connected with specific universities or law schools. Others, such as the Florida and Chicago IPs, are freestanding nonprofits that draw students from several schools. So far, IPs have helped free nearly 300 men and women who had served an average of 13 years for crimes they didn't commit. Seventeen were on death row.

Though it was founded in New York City, the IP has probably had its largest impact in other jurisdictions. IP investigations have led to 42 exonerations in Texas--the most of any state. Furthermore, IP students at Northwestern University played a critical role in prompting the State of Illinois to repeal capital punishment.

"Overturning the convictions of 271 inmates is a real victory for fairness," said Dr. Steve Egger, who is on the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT).

Yet, "the greatest significance of the Innocence Projects has been to expose the continuous and systematic errors, flaws and sometimes deliberate police and prosecutorial misconduct that causes America's criminal justice system to convict innocent people, who are most often Black or Latino and always working class or poor," Egger adds.

Egger is a professor of criminology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. His students get course credits for working with IPOT. After IPOT carefully decides which of the many cases it will accept, the students scrutinize the case records and court documents and then interview the suspect, neighbors and witnesses. Occasionally, they use open-records laws or court orders to gain access to old police files.

IPs do the detailed research and detective work the local police, or the suspect's lawyer, didn't do correctly the first time, then use the new information to force the DNA testing and/or new trials that would prove innocence.

"The Innocence Project doesn't free people from prison," said Craig Watkins, the first Black criminal district attorney fur Dallas. "DAs, prosecutors and judges free people from prison. The Innocence Projects' great contribution has been to confront and reveal the ongoing flaws in the methods police and prosecutors use to identify perpetrators and find them guilty. And in Texas, the number one problem is faulty eyewitness identification."

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According to the IP, faulty eyewitness testimony is the worst problem everywhere, followed by false confessions, junk science, the use of snitches and informants, poor lawyering and deliberate government misconduct.

As a criminologist, Egger is particularly upset with how police and prosecutors consistently abuse "science," ignoring strong research proving that eyewitnesses are often wrong. Twenty-five percent of IP's DNA exonerations involve two mistaken eyewitnesses, and 13 involve three or more. DNA also has proven that innocent people routinely give false confessions.

"On the other hand," Egger says, "many of the techniques that police claim to be 'scientific' have never been validated by the type of double-blind research routinely required in medicine or psychology. …