Innocence Project Marks 15th Year

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Ron Heflin / AP

Larry Fuller, center, is freed in October 2006, exonerated by DNA evidence after he served more than 25 years in prison for aggravated rape. He is flanked by Innocence Project lawyers Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin.

Twenty-two years ago, a young man named Marion Coakley was convicted of robbing and brutally raping a mother of five. But with eight witnesses and a priest corroborating Coakley's alibi, his South Bronx community believed in his innocence. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who had once worked together as public defenders in the Bronx, thought they could help him. The attorneys had just learned about a new technology being tested in England: DNA typing, which compared DNA sequences from crime scene evidence to sequences in the suspect's DNA. With this intriguing defense mechanism potentially available to them, Scheck and Neufeld took on Coakley's appeal.

"We did exonerate him, but we couldn't do the testing," Neufeld says. The sample from the crime scene was too small, so the attorneys had to use conventional defense methods. The investigation, however, helped Scheck and Neufeld realize the importance that DNA forensic testing could have in exonerating those who had been wrongly convicted. In 1989, the first DNA exoneration in the U.S. took place, and Scheck and Neufeld followed the case closely. By the spring of 1992, the team had founded the New York-based Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. Fifteen years later, the project has proven the innocence of 201 people. Similar projects have also been started in 39 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

At the beginning, Scheck and Neufeld had modest goals. But with a staff of six, the team wasn't prepared for the onslaught of interest from convicts. "We never realized we would be getting thousands of requests each year," Neufeld says. As the full-time staff grew — today the team has 38 people, including attorneys, an intake department and a policy department — so did the exoneration rate. Between 1992 and 2002, the project oversaw 100 exonerations; since 2002, it's taken half that time to exonerate 100 more. "Ultimately, the criteria are very simple," Neufeld says of the cases the project chooses to take. "Is it a case where identity is an issue? Is it a case where biological evidence was collected during the initial investigation?" Inmates must complete a detailed questionnaire and provide the Innocence Project with backup material, like police files. "About half the time, we go to the lab, and it turns out the DNA testing confirms guilt," he says. "But that means in 50% of the cases we take on, it turns out they're innocent."

Funding for the Innocence Project has also changed over the past 15 years. In the beginning, Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University funded the program entirely. But today, in an effort to become more independent, the program gets only 10% of the money for its pro bono work from the school — foundations and individual donors provide the rest. Students from Cardozo, however, remain intimately involved. Each semester, a handful are selected to help with the Innocence Project's enormous caseload (currently 250), by researching, collecting old evidence, examining the circumstances surrounding the cases and digging through boxes of old case files.

Three of these students worked closely with attorneys on a case involving Byron Halsey, a man from Plainfield, N.J., who was exonerated on May 15. He served more than two decades in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting, mutilating and murdering two of his girlfriend's children, ages 7 and 8. DNA testing was not available during Halsey's trial, but after obtaining all the necessary evidence — a process that took the Innocence Project three years — a DNA profile from the crime scene showed a direct link to the children's next-door neighbor, who is currently in prison for sexually assaulting two women in the early 1990s. "When we first read the summary of the case, it sounded like convincing evidence of Halsey's guilt," says Vanessa Potkin, an Innocence Project attorney who worked on the case. But after multiple rounds of DNA testing, Halsey’s innocence is undeniable, she says. Halsey, however, still faces the significant obstacles that many exonerees experience in rebuilding their lives, including reconnecting with family or friends and the struggle for housing and employment. But he is "so motivated," Potkin says, describing how Halsey has jumped back into life and is scheduled to start part-time employment this week.

DNA evidence, however, does not guarantee an individual's immediate exoneration. Prosecutors in Union County could re-try Halsey, although "it's inconceivable that there would be another trial in this case," Plotkin says. In most cases, the evidence is so convincing that prosecutors do not choose to hold a retrial, athough they do have that option. According to Neufeld, none of the 201 exonerations have resulted in a guilty verdict after a retrial. Bob Keller, the district attorney in the case of Calvin Johnson, who served more than 15 years in a Georgia prison for a rape he didn't commit, did not prosecute Johnson again. "I applaud the efforts of the Innocence Project," Keller says. "If not for that project, Calvin would still be in jail, which would be an absolute travesty." Keller now works with the Georgia Innocence Project, trying to get legislation passed for all criminal cases to use DNA evidence when available. And he says that most of his peers support the Innocence Project. "No prosecutor wants to know that their efforts resulted in a wrongful conviction."

Not all prosecutors have been so helpful. In the program's early days, its attorneys were often told by prosecutors that evidence was not available when, in fact, it was. "We took people's word and it turns out we couldn't," Neufeld says. But they have learned from the past, and nowadays the team takes extra steps to ensure it that evidence is retrievable. They've also come to rely on and trust their dedicated and highly motivated staff. "I couldn't think of a job that I would rather be doing," says Potkin, who has been with the project since 2000. "When people come to us, they've exhausted every appeal. The Innocence Project for most is the last resort, and we can use the most state-of-the-art science to prove innocence. Every day it's an honor to be a part of it."