Some would argue that before the creation of the Innocence Project, people who were not guilty of crimes were often put behind bars. And statistics suggest they may be right. Founded in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, by Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck, the goal of the Innocence Project (the Project) has been to assist prisoners through the testing of DNA. And to date, more than 330 people have been exonerated by this testing.
Neufeld, an attorney, presented a lecture at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in October, a fitting location for a discussion on the importance of DNA testing, considering that there has been a genetics research program there since 1904. CSHL has steadfastly pioneered DNA research ever since. The former CSHL director, James Watson, who also attended Neufeld’s lecture, created the DNA Learning Center in 1988, the first science center devoted entirely to educating the public about genetics. Watson, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.
The purpose of Neufeld’s lecture was to celebrate the 125th anniversary of CSHL. It was part of a series of lectures focused on the relationships between science and society.
“We are able to exonerate the innocent with DNA testing but also, often, identify the perpetrator of the crime,” Neufeld explained. “It was very important to us at the Project to deconstruct the 330 cases [which the Project later overturned]. Then we worked with scientists to improve what police were gathering to make the evidence more reliable.”
The Project, a national litigation and public policy organization, has been dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
“We are trying to change the behavior of the people working in the forensic labs, the police and the district attorney’s office,” Neufeld said. “We don’t look at if the person arrested has an eyewitness, or if they’ve signed a confession. All we look at is the biology.”
The use of DNA as evidence has grown. Once limited to blood and urine samples, it is now used more extensively. “We can look at the DNA on the handle of a baseball bat used to strike someone, for example,” Neufeld said. “But nothing is perfect, not even DNA.”
The Project has faced numerous hurdles in litigating their cases. It takes a great deal of time to locate evidence, Neufeld said, and sometimes that evidence is degraded and cannot be accurately tested. Other times the evidence is lost or has been destroyed. And sometimes DNA evidence does not benefit the defendant. “A lot of people that come to us, we do the DNA testing and they end up being guilty,” Neufeld said, adding that great care is taken to be certain that if they do prove someone to be innocent, that it is done factually.
But there is also a dedication to more lofty goals. “What we’d like is to see total transparency in the criminal justice system,” Neufeld said.
He believes that wrongful convictions are often reached due to an unreliable snitch or eyewitness. The Project’s experiences have led them to working with the FBI, who Neufeld said has used unscientific testimony to put people in jail. “The FBI picked up 2,500 cases and we examined 350 of them. In 96 percent of their cases, of which many were death penalty cases, 24 out of 26 of their people working on the cases provided unscientific data later used as testimony,” he added.
But the FBI’s lab was not the only place gathering evidence void of scientific methods. “They offered courses to train other analysts, who later testified in unscientific ways as well,” Neufeld explained, adding that the Justice Department is currently recommending that states do reviews on their examiners. “We want the labs to be improved so the work they are doing is validated. What we are now uncovering will effect other disciplines [used to obtain evidence], like fingerprinting.”
The disciplines used in crime labs have traditionally not included medical or engineering components, he said. “There was just a law enforcement component,” he said. “So they developed their techniques to advance public safety. We have been able to demonstrate that when you convict the wrong person that the other guy is still out there committing crimes.”
Neufeld also shared an example of a type of evidence that should never be used — bite marks. “The skin stretches and compresses so there is no reason to use it as an evidentiary basis,” he explained. “Finding the right criminal is all about the way you interpret the data.”
The Project has 80 people on staff and nine lawyers. It receives 2,500 letters a year from people seeking their help. Neufeld says they are backlogged three years. But he isn’t discouraged. “We need to change the culture. That will change the results.”