Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shadow of a Doubt: The Clarence Elkins Story

The Innocence Project

When properly used and understood by the court, DNA appears to be an important safeguard against erroneous convictions, and yet for a long time many states resisted post-conviction testing. Attorneys don't like being second-guessed, but since 1992 over 212 convicted men have been exonerated by exculpatory DNA evidence developed by the New York-based Innocence Project.

Innocence Project logo
Innocence Project logo

Founded by defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project operates out of the Benjamin N. Cardoza School of Law at Yeshiva University. Scheck and Neufeld were on the DNA Task Force for the defense attorneys' association and had worked hard to bring accountability into evidence handling. Thus, they set up a pro-bono advocacy group, relying on graduate students to assist.

They evaluate requests from prisoners or families of prisoners, read through court transcripts and other reports, and determine whether biological evidence from the case has been preserved well enough for a DNA extraction. If the case fits their criteria and they see problems with the investigation or prosecution, they take it on. Thanks to their work, other lawyers have followed a similar pattern and many more such projects have been set up around the country. Almost every state has one, and some have more than one.

Scheck has stated that many of the cases for which he advocated were "wars," because throughout the 1990s many courts resisted getting DNA testing done. To assert that an innocent person has been convicted is considered by many to be tantamount to an attack on the justice system. "In 33 states in this country," he said, "there are statutes of limitations of six months or less on newly discovered evidence of innocence motions. We have to fight that." In other words, the schedule of legal procedure does not necessarily coincide with that of justice. One thing that the DNA revolution in the legal system has proven, Scheck says, is that there are far more innocent people in prison—sometimes awaiting execution—than we might otherwise believe.

Janet Reno took note of the issues and in 1996 called together a Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. Everyone who attended agreed that such tests ought to be available, yet in reality, many court personnel continued to defend the existing system against the proposition that mistakes are made. Few lay people understand the ramifications, but in essence, those who are fighting for better statutes for post-conviction testing are working on behalf of people whose innocence can be demonstrated by forensic science—a far more reliable standard than eyewitness testimony. Nevertheless, it can still be an uphill battle.

Ohio is one of the states with an Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati. Mark Godsey, its head, enlisted twenty law students to help go through records for the case of Clarence Elkins.

 

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