Nothing on this earth is perfect even though we strive for perfection with everything we do. The American justice system is no exception. When it comes to investigating and punishing those that commit crimes, there can be many uncertainties and sometimes people who didn’t commit the crime are the ones punished. The Innocence project is a non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating those that are punished for crimes they didn’t commit, usually by using post-conviction DNA testing.
The Innocence project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield. The organization was part of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The Innocence project doesn’t only use DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, they also work on reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.
The First Cases
In 1993 after operating for only a year, the project exonerated its first person facing the death penalty. Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death row for brutally killing and sexually assaulting a nine-year old girl. He was included as a suspect from an anonymous tip that said he was seen with the victim earlier that day. Other witnesses also mentioned they heard Bloodsworth say,“that he had done something terrible that day and it would affect his relationship with his wife.” He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison but the police failed to tell the defense that they had another suspect and the decision was overturned and retried. This time Bloodworth was sentenced to death.
In 1992 the court agreed to post-conviction DNA testing on the biological evidence from the case. DNA from the victim’s underwear excluded Bloodsworth and he was released from prison in June of 1993. He was officially pardoned in December of 1993.
In 1994 the Innocence Project helped pass the first law that would grant inmates the right to post-conviction DNA testing in New York. Over the years, post-conviction DNA testing has gained widespread acceptance and other states have quickly added their own statutes, including the federal government in 2004. All states except Oklahoma now have some sort of post-conviction DNA testing statute.
By 1997, over 50 people had been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Iowa and New Jersey passed laws designed to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Typically, after being exonerated, the former inmate is left with no money, housing, health care, insurance or transportation. Many times, the individual’s criminal record is not expunged or erased and still publicly accessible. It is the States’ responsibility to restore their lives to some sort of normalcy after wrongfully punishing them.
The book Actual Innocence was published in 2000. It was written by both founders of the Innocence Project, Neufield and Sheck, along with Pulitzer prize journalist, Jim Dwyer. It was based largely on the workings of the Innocence Project and its cases.
In 2001 the Innocence Project celebrated their 100th exoneration. Larry Mayes was convicted of rape and robbery in 1982. He served 21 years in prison before being exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in 2001. The evidence against Mayes was mainly the victim’s identification that he was the one that raped her. All of the fingerprints from the scene excluded Mayes and the semen sample test were inconclusive at the time.
In 2002 North Carolina formed an Actual Innocence Commission that was created by Chief Justice Beverley Lake Jr. She formed it to help study cases of wrongful conviction and form a national model for reform effectiveness.
In 2003 Illinois and Washington D.C were the first major jurisdictions to mandate electronic recording of all interrogations. Now, 800 jurisdictions nationwide regularly use recorded interrogations to decrease the chance of false confessions. Law enforcement agencies have embraced the procedure as a good policy; not only can it prevent officers from using illegal tactics to secure a confession but it may help enhance the credibility of the criminal justice system to everyday Americans.
2004 brought a landmark Federal Law that included access to post-conviction DNA testing and preservation of any biological evidence from Federal cases. Also in 2004, the Innocence Project had grown out of its organization status to being a full-blown, non-profit organization.
In 2005 the Innocence Project created the Innocence Network that would formally establish a group of separate organizations to band together under one common cause; helping those who are seeking exoneration and help fix the reasons why they were wrongfully convicted.
In 2007 the 200th person was exonerated. Jerry Miller was convicted of rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1982. He had been paroled a year earlier than his exoneration but had served over 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Post-conviction DNA testing excluded Miller from the crime and he was exonerated in 2007.
The Case of Kenny Waters
In 2010 the movie “Convicted” was released, which was the real life story of Kenny Waters and his sister, Betty Anne Waters. Kenny Waters served 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Betty Anne promised herself that she would exonerate her brother and at 29 years of age, she went back to school to study law. Kenny had been convicted for killing his neighbor, Katherina Reitz Brow. He was questioned by police because he was her neighbor, but he also worked at a popular diner that she would frequently visit. Waters was excluded from the crime because he had a strong alibi: he had worked at the diner until 8:30 that morning and was driven home by a co-worker. Fingerprints taken from the scene also excluded Waters as a suspect.
A couple years later a tip was called into the police with a man saying that he had been told by his girlfriend (an ex-girlfriend of waters) that Waters had murdered Brow. To corroborate his story, police investigated Waters ex-girlfriend, Brenda Marsh. Ms. Marsh initially denied that Waters had told her anything about the crime. When the police threatened her with arrest if she didn’t cooperate, she told them that waters had told her that he had killed Brow. Waters was arrested and charged with murder. At the trial, information from the case that had proved Waters’ alibi and the fingerprints that were found at the scene had disappeared. He was convicted of murder in May 1983. Betty Anne was able to locate the blood evidence from the case and asked for the evidence to be preserved for future DNA testing. In 2000 Betty Anne became involved with the Innocence Project and was able to make an agreement with the court to have DNA testing done at a private lab. The testing results proved Waters innocent of the crime and in 2001 the conviction was vacated. Unfortunately only six months after Waters’ exoneration, he died in a tragic accident.
The Innocence Project Continues its Work
In 2011 the Innocence project joined with other organizations to form a nationwide tour to explore policy reforms that would make prosecutors more responsible about their conduct while working a case.
In 2012 the 300th person was exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Damon Thibodeaux was proven innocent by a reinvestigation into his case, which found he had falsely confessed out of fear of the death penalty. He served 15 years on Louisiana’s death row.
The Innocence Project has exonerated a total of 306 wrongfully convicted people. They were proven innocent by using post-conviction DNA testing. There are some commonalities between cases such as invalid or improper forensic science, false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, overzealous police officers or prosecutors and poor defense counsel.
These short-comings in the system are also a mission that the Innocence Project works on to correct. The average time served by each exoneree is about 13.6 years, which is ludicrous when you consider that they were not the perpetrator of the crime. As more and more of the wrongfully convicted are exonerated, the problems with the system are becoming clear and the Innocence Project is here to help fix it.