The History of the Innocence Project

The goal of the Innocence Project is to exonerate wrongfully-convicted and imprisoned individuals using DNA evidence, as well as reform the criminal justice system to prevent similar acts of injustice. It was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld and is associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Yeshiva University in New York, New York. It became an independent non-profit legal clinic, litigation and public policy organization in 2004, but supervised students still handle casework. To date, 306 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence with 170 of those having been freed thanks to the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project was founded following new awareness of wrongful convictions, 75% of which involved misidentification by eyewitnesses. Poor forensics, false confessions, and incorrect informants also factor into a number of wrongful convictions. The Project is part of a larger affiliation of similar organizations doing similar work, known as the Innocence Network. The Network is made up of more than fifty-five organizations around the world.

The first person exonerated using DNA evidence was Gary Dotson in 1989. He was wrongfully accused of aggravated kidnapping and rape because of eyewitness misidentification and poor forensics. He served ten years of his sentence before being freed. Since then exonerations have occurred in thirty-six states and the bulk of exonerations have taken place since the year 2000. Dotson’s, as well as several other exonerations following his, brought a great deal of attention to the issue and played a role in the foundation of the Innocence Project. Forty-seven states have granted access to post-conviction DNA in order to clear inmates and twenty-seven states provide compensation for the wrongfully accused. 

Funds for the Innocence Project come mainly from individuals, donating 45%. Another 30% comes from various foundations, 15% from the annual benefit dinner, 7% from the Cordozo School of Law and the remaining amount comes from corporations. The vast majority of funds, 85%, goes directly into program costs, including DNA testing and court costs. The remaining goes toward fundraising and overhead costs like administration. The Innocence Project has two co-directors and a managing attorney, as well as six full-time staff attorneys and nearly 300 active cases at any given time.

Over the last several years, a deal of headway has been made in criminal justice reform because of the Innocence Project giving more publicity to the issue. Not only are more and more people being cleared of their crimes, even after they have served their sentences, but progress is being made to prevent the wrongful convictions in the first place. Lineups and eyewitness procedures have been changed in several states. Standards have been put in place for forensic science and the handling and preservation of evidence, and more than 500 jurisdictions now record interrogations to avoid false confessions.