Criminal Justice

15-Year-Old Innocence Project Thriving

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When Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld began the Innocence Project 15 years ago, their goals were relatively modest. Today their New York-based program has 38 employees, has exonerated 201 convicts and freed them from prison and is a model for similar efforts in 39 other states.

The two one-time public defenders in the Bronx were among the first defense lawyers to use then brand-new DNA testing technology, and the results were dramatic. “About half the time, we go to the lab, and it turns out the DNA testing confirms guilt,” Neufeld tells Time Magazine. “But that means in 50% of the cases we take on, it turns out they’re innocent.”

Although innocent inmates are glad to be freed, they still face significant obstacles putting their lives back together after years – sometimes decades – in prison. Also, while DNA evidence may get an inmate out of prison by identifying the apparent true culprit in the crime, and thus, in the opinion of program staff, exonerate him, it may not legally preclude a retrial. In most cases, says staff attorney Vanessa Potkin, prosecutors don’t retry inmates released as a result of Innocence Project efforts, because the evidence they were wrongly accused is overwhelming. So far, none of the inmates released as a result of the project’s work has subsequently been retried and found guilty, Neufeld says.

Initially entirely funded by Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, the program now relies largely on private donations, but Cardozo law students are still actively involved in Innocence Project cases.

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