The Innocence Project is a non-governmental organisation, whose mission is “dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice”. The project was founded in 1992 by two American lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, located in New York City. Although it became an independent not-for-profit organisation in 2004, the project still retains a close affiliation with the school where it was founded.
The inspiration for the Innocence Project resulted from increasing concerns regarding the reliability of convictions based upon the accuracy of eye-witness evidence. Indeed, several research studies conducted over the past three decades have concluded that incorrect eye witness identification has been a major causal factor in nearly three-quarters of the cases of wrongful convictions. The second impetus for the creation of the project resulted from the fact that a new DNA typing technology being developed in the UK had come to the attention of the two founding members of the Innocence Project, both of whom had previously worked as public defenders. This new system provided a means of comparing “DNA sequences from crime scene evidence to sequences in the suspect’s DNA”. It was the advances in DNA technology and its use for the purpose of exonerating persons who had been convicted of a crime they had not committed that was the ultimate driver that led to Scheck and Neufeld to establish the Innocence project.
In the past two decades, the organisation has grown significantly. In the early days, it comprised of a small board, with Scheck and Neufeld as co-directors of the project, who used students from the university to help with research requirements attached to the cases taken on, which also assisted within their studies. However, since becoming an independent organisation, the executive board has grown to 15 members from various backgrounds, including a former client who was exonerated in 2002, with the founders remaining as co-directors. The staff currently numbers more than 70 personnel.
Since its inception, the Innocence Project has led to the exoneration of 306 wrongful convictions, including 17 inmates who had been given the death sentence. In such cases, the organisation has either acted directly as counsel for the convicted person or worked closely with defence attorneys in a consultancy capacity.
While the focal part of the project’s objective is to provide DNA evidence to support overturning wrongful convictions, it is also involved with other equally important tasks. Among these are conducting continuing research into other potential causal factors of wrongful convictions, which include improper forensic sciences, false confessions and bad lawyering, as well as providing recommendations for policy reform. Equally important is the fact that the organisation was the founder of the Innocence Network, whose membership comprises of similar organisations throughout the US and overseas, particularly in the UK, Europe and Australia, which have similar aims and objectives.
With research indicating that between 2.3 and 5% of current prison inmates have been wrongly convicted, it is clear that the innocence project and others of a similar nature play an important role in ensuring that only the truly guilty are sentenced for a crime that has been committed.