Freeing the Unjustly Imprisoned: Innocence Project Affiliates Flourish, Many Tied to Universities

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by Paul Ruffins

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,” says Craig Watkins, the first Black criminal district attorney for Dallas. “DAs, prosecutors and judges free people from prison.”

“The Innocence Projects’ great contribution,” Watkins adds, “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.”

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. Few, if any peer-reviewed studies prove the validity of analyzing patterns of blood spatters or confirm whether police can accurately match a suspect’s dental records to bite marks on a victim.”

The Illinois Impact

If Texas has been the state where IPs have revealed the most problems, Illinois is where they have led to the biggest solutions.

In 1996, students from the IP at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism began re-investigating the notorious “Ford Heights Four” case where four young Black men had been convicted of a 1978 kidnapping, rape and double murder largely based on a coerced confession by a mentally disturbed young woman who quickly recanted her testimony. The IP students uncovered an old police file showing that another witness had identified a completely different set of suspects but police never followed up on the lead. Ultimately, DNA evidence cleared the original suspects and led to the largest civil rights settlement against police and prosecutors in U.S. history — $36 million.

After Medill journalism students also helped free Anthony Porter from death row in 1999, then Republican Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000 and appointed a special “innocence commission” to study how the wrong people ended up on death row. Its first two recommendations were videotaping all interrogations or confessions of murder suspects and revising the ways police used eyewitnesses to identity suspects in lineups. In 2003, Ryan commuted all death sentences to life in prison and credited the IP with helping him make the decision, stating, “A system that depends on young journalism students [to ensure justice] is flawed.”

Conclusive proof that innocent people had been sentenced to death was a major factor in Illinois’ repeal of capital punishment this year. One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul, explained that it shifted the debate from, “Is it morally acceptable for the state to execute murderers?” to “Can government ever be sure that it’s not making a mistake?” Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said, “The specter of executing an innocent person has always been an underlying reason for the public’s ambivalence about the death penalty. The Innocence Projects have saved innocent lives and left an indelible impression in the public’s mind that this problem is more than theoretical.”

University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn, who also serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Florida, says that “the greatest proof that the Innocence Projects have had a systematic impact on the entire criminal justice system” is found in the number of state innocence or criminal justice reform commissions that have now been established to investigate the causes of wrongful convictions.

As of now, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin have established some sort of criminal justice reform commission to consider changes in eyewitness identification procedures, the use of confessions and informants, and the handling of forensic evidence.

Nunn believes that working on IP cases doesn’t only change the system, it also changes his students. “The work helps them to crystallize their knowledge of the criminal justice system and to see the reality of wrongful convictions first hand. The students rave about the experience and most of them go on to careers in criminal defense or public interest law. It is an exciting and promising way for law students to help achieve social justice in these times.”

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