Innocent, After Proven Guilty

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

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The Innocence Project is operating in a shrinking field. The vast majority of its docket consists of old cases, prosecuted when DNA testing was still rare. Now that law enforcement is integrating DNA into its investigative procedures (see box), there should be fewer people convicted despite exonerating biological evidence. But the broader problem addressed by the project--that innocent people are going to jail--shows no sign of ending. Why is the criminal-justice system making so many mistakes?

One reason, the Innocence Project has shown, is that juries often don't require much evidence to convict people of serious crimes. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the case against Fritz--no eyewitnesses, no evidence linking him to the victim and no credible evidence linking him to the crime scene--was painfully weak. So was the case in Tulsa, Okla., against Tim Durham, who spent six years in prison (of a 3,220-year sentence) for the rape of an 11-year-old girl, until DNA cleared him. The jury ignored 11 alibi witnesses who swore Durham was at a skeet-shooting contest when the crime occurred.

DNA is also confirming a point legal scholars have long made: that eyewitnesses are often wrong. "There's a myth that the image is burned in a witness's mind and never forgotten," says Yale Law School lecturer Stephen Bright. "In fact, science says just the opposite." And eyewitness testimony is only as reliable as the eyewitness. Two men sentenced to death for a Chicago murder and then freed by DNA evidence in 1996 were convicted largely on the testimony of a woman with a sub-75 IQ, who later said prosecutors promised to release her from jail if she testified.

Even many prosecutors concede the Innocence Project is performing an important function. Robert Keller, the Clayton County district attorney who agreed that Calvin Johnson Jr. should be freed, says he applauds its work in that case and in others. "My only concern is that we not create the image that there are just tremendous numbers of inmates who have been wrongly convicted," he says. "That isn't the case."

Still, Scheck says one of the most important lessons from the Innocence Project's work is that the system does get it wrong, and more often than people think. One person who doesn't need to be convinced is Dennis Fritz. Now that he's free, he's planning to go to law school--and to start a new career as a defense attorney.

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