Innocent, After Proven Guilty

More inmates are being set free thanks to DNA tests--and a pioneering law clinic

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Oklahoma junior high school science teacher Dennis Fritz never thought he would be convicted of raping and murdering his neighbor, 21-year-old Debra Sue Carter. He had no criminal record, except for driving offenses, and the case against him was paper thin--flimsy circumstantial evidence and the dubious testimony of a jailhouse snitch who claimed Fritz confessed while awaiting trial. Was that really all it took to send a man away for life? "When the jury came back with a guilty verdict, I almost went into shock," says Fritz.

His conviction separated Fritz from his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth, whom he was raising as a single father. His co-defendant, Ron Williamson, landed on death row and came within days of being executed. Years later, Williamson's conviction was reversed on a technicality. Before retrying him, prosecutors decided to do a DNA test of semen and hair found at the crime scene and compare them with Williamson's. Fritz's lawyers asked them to test Fritz too. Result? The DNA excluded both men and implicated someone else who had never been charged with the crime. Last April, after 12 years behind bars, Fritz and Williamson were freed.

Such stories have become shockingly familiar: a convicted criminal, wasting away in jail with little hope of ever proving his innocence, is set free when a DNA test reveals he couldn't have committed the crime. Vincent Jenkins, who had served 17 years in prison for the rape of a Buffalo, N.Y., woman, was released just last week after DNA evidence showed he was not the culprit. He became the 65th inmate to have a conviction overturned thanks to DNA evidence, including eight released from death row. These numbers are testimony to the fallibility of our criminal-justice system, as well as to the determination of the Innocence Project, an enterprising New York City law clinic that has pioneered the use of DNA to free the wrongly convicted.

The Innocence Project is the brainchild of New York lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Both gained fame as part of O.J. Simpson's legal "dream team," and Scheck returned to the media spotlight as the defense attorney for British au pair Louise Woodward. But the Innocence Project dates back to an earlier time, when Scheck and Neufeld were overworked and underpaid Legal Aid lawyers in the South Bronx. Like most defense lawyers, they believed the system made mistakes. And earlier than most, they realized that the hot new technology of DNA testing could revolutionize criminal defense by providing scientific proof that their clients were not guilty. After doing DNA testing in a few early cases and organizing a conference, Scheck and Neufeld soon found themselves leaders in the field.

They established the Innocence Project in 1991 as a clinic for students at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where Scheck has taught for more than 20 years. The clinic is a low-key place, hidden away on the 11th floor of an office building on lower Fifth Avenue. Law students hunched up in cubicles pore over case files and draft legal motions. In a corner, boxes are piled high with letters from prisoners pleading to have the project take their case. The law school pays most of the bills; private foundations, including George Soros' Open Society Institute, help with the rest.

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