The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield, is a national non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing, and reforming the criminal justice system to stop further injustice. With the help of this organization, more the 300 people in the United States have been freed, including eighteen who were on death row. These wrongly convicted individuals served an average of thirteen years in prison before their release. The Innocence Project’s work in DNA analysis has proven that wrongful convictions are not isolated occurrences, but are a symptom of the larger problems within the justice system.
In the Innocence Project’s work to free wrongfully convicted inmates, it has narrowed down five major reasons why innocent people are convicted:
1. Witness Misidentification: this is the single most common cause of wrongful convictions; playing a role in 75% of the convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing. Over thirty years of social science research has proven that eyewitness testimony is, more often than not, unreliable or inaccurate. Witness testimony is like any other piece of evidence at a crime scene: it must be preserved and retrieved carefully to avoid contamination. The human brain is susceptible to error, therefore people can neither record events exactly as they see them nor will they be will able to recall them without some uncertainty or error.
2. Misconduct or Improper Forensic Science: unlike DNA analysis, which was developed through rigorous testing and research, other forensics techniques, such as hair microscopy, bit mark analysis, and shoe print comparisons have not been subjected to systematic evaluation. Other techniques, such as blood typing, which have been validated can be improperly conducted in a lab or inaccurately described in trial. Misconduct involving forensic science has played a role in over 50% of cases in which an individual was exonerated by DNA testing.
3. False Confessions: in 25% of cases in which DNA testing was used for exoneration, innocent individuals made incriminating statements, false confessions, or pled guilty. A variety of reasons for false confession include: coercion, intoxication, mental impairment, stress, infliction of harm, or misunderstanding of the situation.
4. Government Misconduct: in some wrongful convictions law enforcement and prosecutors lose sight of their constitutional obligations in order to get a conviction. Official misconduct occurs at every level and stage of criminal investigation and justice, the most common forms of misconduct are: suggestion when conducting witness identification, coercing false confessions, lying or misleading jurors about their observations, and providing incentives to informants for unreliable evidence.
5. Bad Lawyers: the justice system is often unfairly stacked against poor defendants. The funding and access to resources for public defenders are shrinking and court appointed attorneys often make the defendant’s situation worse. Cases of ineffective, incompetent, or overburdened defense lawyers who fail to investigate, call witnesses or prepare for trial can often lead to a guilty conviction for innocent persons.
The Innocence Projects dedication to preserving the fair and just use of science in criminal trials is one of many reasons those who are innocent call for their help when they are wrongly convicted. The organization also supports the creation of a federal forensic science agency to research, validate, and set standards for various fields of study in forensic science. The Innocence Project supports local and state commissions to ensure forensic facilities have the resources to do quality work, and advocates for the full enforcement of existing forensic standards.