The media sometimes highlights the release of people who have sat in jail for as long as 40 years, when new evidence surfaces to exonerate them. It is estimated that between 2.3-5 percent of prisoners in the US are innocent. Many of those wrongfully convicted have been released due to the efforts of the Innocence Project. Though the percentages seem small, they equate to more than 20,000 people. The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization, has helped more than 300 wrongfully convicted individuals, including some who have sat on death row, gain their freedom. For more than two decades, the organization has examined cases which can help innocent people with DNA evidence often playing a key role in freeing those sitting in jail cells.
The Innocence Project was established in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. At the time of its inception, DNA testing began playing a key role in the conviction or exclusion of individuals in criminal cases. Founders Barry C. Scheck (who gained fame as one of O. J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” lawyers) and Peter J. Neufeld felt that DNA testing could help free those who proclaimed their innocence. Though DNA testing is used in most cases, the Innocence Project has freed individuals based on other evidence as well.
The groundwork for the organization, though, began before its establishment in 1992. It began when Scheck and Neufeld, working as public defenders in the Bronx, assisted a man named Marion Coakley who had been given a 15-year sentence despite an alibi supported by multiple witnesses, including his priest. The victim and another person with her at the time, though, stated that she saw the face of her attacker. The two lawyers used the new DNA technology to exclude Coakley as the attacker and succeeded in overturning his conviction. Later, the two lawyers and a small group of volunteers began the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project has not only extolled the use of DNA technology in criminal cases as a way to solve them. It has also pointed out flaws in the legal system. The criminal justice system in many instances has allowed the imprisonment of innocent people based on unreliable sources. For instance, an inadequate defense, evidence tampering and contamination as well as prosecutorial misconduct have accounted for innumerable wrongful convictions.
Since 1992,, the Innocence Project has spread beyond the boundaries of New York and now has branches in other states. It is also part of the Innocence Network, 70 percent of the cases include minorities.
The Innocence Project started as a way for two lawyers and a small group of volunteers to help those who, through no fault of their own, became victims to the legal system. For more than two decades, it has righted wrongs of the legal system and garnered respect across the United States and around the world. Through its continued efforts, innocent people have been exonerated and allowed to live among the free again. The Innocence Project helped bring to light the effectiveness of new technology, along with traditional methods, in improving the legal system.