The Success of the Innocence Project

In 2012, The Innocence Project celebrated its 20 year anniversary of being instrumental in the freeing of individuals who have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. More than 300 individuals, including 18 who were once on death row, have been exonerated by the efforts of The Innocence Project.

Getting to Know the Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a public policy as well as a national litigation agency that works to free those who have already been convicted and are serving time in prison for crimes they did not commit. The Innocence Project does not work to keep individuals from going to prison; all the clients are inmates who have already been convicted and serving time in prison. Some have been sentenced to death.

Started in 1992, the Innocence Project is the culmination of efforts by founders Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to aid inmates who may be found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and incarcerated. In 2004, although still closely associated with Cardozo School of Law, the Innocence Project became an independent non-profit organization.

The Innocence Project has become so renowned in aiding the wrongly convicted that they receive over 3,000 letters on an annual basis from individuals requesting assistance to help prove their own innocence or the innocence of a loved one. Staff, lawyers and law students are constantly reviewing and working on thousands of cases at any given time. Staff decides which cases to take based on the likelihood that DNA testing can be conducted, either taken from the inmate or evidence that was retrieved from a crime scene. Also considered is if the retrieval of DNA from any source is likely to have a positive result, proving that the convicted individual did not commit the crime or crimes which resulted in conviction.

Who Are the Clients?

The convicted inmate who becomes a client of the Innocence Project has likely spent an average of 13 years in prison for one or more felony convictions. Individuals may have been sentenced to many years in prison, been given a life sentence, either with or without the possibility of parole, or even given the death penalty. Another common factor in those that have been proved innocent is that they are overwhelmingly inmates of color. In fact, 70% of those exonerated through the efforts of the Innocence Project are of color.

While clients may come from different backgrounds, there is one thing that they all have in common: they have been convicted of crimes that they did not commit. Kenny Waters is one such case. Kenny was convicted of murdering a woman in Ayer, Massachusetts. Her purse, jewelry and cash was also taken from the home where Katherina Brow was left dead after being stabbed over 30 times. Waters, a next door neighbor, was questioned the day after Brow was discovered dead.

More than 2 years after the crime, a man who was now living with the girlfriend of Kenny Waters at the time the murder occurred, went to police and offered information in exchange for being paid for it. Robert Osborne told police that Brenda Marsh stated that Waters had killed a woman. Although she initially denied making the statements that Osborne told the police about, Brenda Marsh finally agreed to go along with the details after police threatened that her children would be taken away and informed her that she could be charged as an accessory to murder. Waters was subsequently charged and convicted of the murder. He received a life sentence.

Waters appealed his conviction several times and although witnesses recanted their testimony, his appeals were denied. Betty Waters, Kenny’s sister, worked to educate herself by going to college and then on to law school so that she could help free her brother. She eventually became involved with the Innocence Project. After a request by the Innocence Project and Betty Ann Waters, the District Attorney agreed to let a private lab conduct DNA analysis on evidence. The results proved that Kenny Waters did not murder Katherina Brow. He was set free after more than 18 years imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. Sadly, just six months after his release, Kenny Waters died in an accident.

James Bain was incarcerated for over three decades for rape and kidnapping. He spent more time in prison than any other person who later was freed by the efforts of the Innocence Project. Bain was just a teenager when he was arrested for allegedly dragging a nine-year-old boy from his bed and raping him in a nearby field. The victim estimated his attacker to be around 17 or 18, with bushy sideburns. The victim said the attacker stated his name was “Jim” or “Jimmy.” That led police to James Bain.

At the time this crime was committed, DNA analysis was not yet available. The matching of blood type was the primary method utilized as tying an individual to a crime. Even though the analysis of semen indicated the perpetrator was blood type B, and Bain’s blood type is AB positive and an expert testified that Bain should be excluded as a suspect, he was convicted of the crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. With assistance from the Innocence Project and the Tenth Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bob Young, post-conviction DNA testing was finally granted in 2001. Results excluded Bain as the person to whom the DNA belonged. He was released from prison in 2009 after serving 35 years for rape, kidnapping and burglary offenses that he did not commit.

What Methods Does the Innocence Project Use to Help Free the Innocent?

The Innocence Project attributes a number of factors as primary reasons that individuals are convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not convict. Eyewitness misidentification is the most frequent cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. In up to 75% of the wrongful convictions that have been overturned after DNA analysis, eyewitness misidentification played a role in the individual being convicted. The Innocence Project has worked on many of the cases where eyewitness misidentification was a factor in an individual being wrongfully convicted of one or more crimes. As far back as 1932, eyewitness misidentification has been a consideration in convicting the innocent.

False confessions are another reason that an innocent person can be convicted. Duress from police interrogation, misunderstanding the situation, mental instability, threat of a harsh sentence or actual violence are all factors that may cause a false confession. At times, informants play a major role in the conviction of the innocent. People may be paid to testify or given another incentive, such as reduction of their own sentence in exchange for providing court testimony that leads to wrongful conviction. Bad lawyers sadly sometimes cause an individual to be convicted. Poor clients are the overwhelming victims of this factor. Overburdened public defenders who may know little, if anything, about a case prior to entering the courtroom, can result in a poor defense. Other lawyers may be just ineffective. Unreliable forensic science that has never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation is another factor.

DNA analysis has changed the role of forensic analysis in proving a person can or cannot be excluded as the perpetrator of a crime. But there have been several instances where dishonest forensic analysts have fabricated results. Those fabricated results may have led to some convictions of the innocent. Corruption of law enforcement professionals may also play a part. With all these factors that may possibly play a role in the innocent being convicted of serious crimes, the Innocence Project works to unravel all the possibilities that may have led to a wrongful conviction. This takes a great deal of work and effort, especially since some cases are decades old.

There are Large Numbers of the Innocent

It has been estimated that between 2.3% and 5% of all incarcerated inmates are innocent. The Innocence Project makes this easy to understand by explaining that if only 1% of inmates in prisons throughout the U.S. were innocent, that number would translate to 20,000 innocent individuals currently incarcerated in prisons across the country. The Innocence Project works diligently to reduce the numbers of inmates who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Individuals who wish to learn more about some of the cases where the Innocence Project was instrumental in getting the innocent freed can review some of the cases and the individuals behind the numbers of the wrongfully convicted.