Prison reform and The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield as part of the Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, NYC. Both Scheck and Neufield are attorneys who were part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team during his famous murder trial. The Innocence Project was established after a study by the United States Department of Justice, the United States Senate and the Cardozo School of Law found that the wrongful identification by eyewitnesses was responsible for over 70 percent of wrongful convictions.

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices by exonerating wrongfully convicted people through the use of DNA testing. Law students handle case work under the supervision of a team of attorneys and clinic staff. Most of their clients are convicts that are forgotten, poor and have used up all their legal avenues to have their convictions overturned. There are felons who were wrongfully convicted due to eye witness errors from confusion or faulty memory, snitch testimonies given in exchange for reduced sentence time. Others have been incarcerated because of government misconduct by both the police and the prosecution, false confessions due to mental or emotional illnesses, police torture, mishandling of evidence, and junk testimony from unqualified “experts.” Forensic use of DNA testing began in 1986 in England. DNA analyses of skin, hair, saliva, blood and semen are now widely used by police, defense attorneys, prosecutors and courts in the United States.

The Innocence Project has proven that eyewitness identifications are often unreliable, that scientific techniques using bite mark comparisons are now known to be subjective comparisons, and that many other forensic science techniques lack uniform scientific standards.  

As of 2012, The Innocence Project has freed 305 wrongfully convicted people. Of those 305 people, 18 of them were on death row awaiting execution. Innocence Project case files show that approximately 70 percent of felons exonerated by DNA evidence are people of color. The average sentence served of those exonerated was 13.6 years. Exonerations have been won in 35 states and in Washington, D.C. In approximately 50 percent of exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator was identified by DNA testing.

In 2003, The Innocence Project became an independent, non-profit organization that maintains close ties with the Cardozo School of Law. Funding comes from individual contributions (45 percent), an annual benefit dinner (15 percent), contributions from the Cardozo School of Law (7 percent) and the rest from various corporations.

The Innocence Project is a founding member of the Innocence Network, which brings 46 states and several other countries together as part of a network where law schools and public defense offices can work together to help convicted felons prove their innocence.