Edwin Meese, 75th Attorney General of the United States, once said, “If a person is innocent of crime, then he is not a suspect.” (1) If that’s so, how do you explain the fact that 174 wrongfully convicted inmates have been exonerated since 1989? Forensic DNA testing has provided scientific proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events. But “DNA exonerations alone do not solve the problem - they [merely] prove its existence and illuminate the need for reform.” (2) Many factors lead to wrongful convictions: things like false confessions, snitch testimony, unreliable microscopic hair comparison testing, and, the big one, mistaken eyewitness identifications. How do we know this? Through pioneering efforts by organizations like the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project had its beginnings in 1992, when attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded a small, non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice reform organization, whose sole mission was to secure the release of wrongly convicted people through DNA testing. Since then, the Innocence Project has developed into the Innocence Network, a group of law schools, journalism schools, and public defender offices across the country that assist inmates trying to prove their innocence. (3)
Wisconsin joined this national network when in 1998, UW law professors Keith Findley and John Pray co-founded the Wisconsin Innocence Project, or “WIP.”(4) WIP is part of the Frank J. Remington Center at the UW Law School. WIP provides legal assistance free of charge to inmates in criminal cases where DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence. Approximately 20 students handle the casework under the supervision of clinical instructors and staff attorneys. Most of WIP’s clients are indigent and have exhausted all other legal avenues for relief. The only hope they have left is that biological evidence from their cases still exists, and that this evidence is suitable for DNA testing.
In addition to our efforts to free innocent inmates, WIP has partnered with State legislators and the Attorney General to introduce legislation and law enforcement policy guidelines that will improve the criminal justice system. Our partnership with Representative Mark Gundrum in the Wisconsin Legislative Task Force resulted in new legislation that will improve investigation techniques such as the electronic recording of interrogations. And we worked together with Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager to bring about a new statewide model policy for improving police procedure in eyewitness identifications.
But there is still much work to be done. WIP’s greatest goal is that our efforts will raise awareness and concern about the failings of our criminal justice system because when the system fails, everyone loses. Individuals falsely accused and convicted will more than likely spend a decade or more behind bars before gaining their freedom. Children will grow up without parents; marriages will likely dissolve. We all pay for this egregious mistake because, lest we forget, the real perpetrator is still out there. Our goals are not altogether inconsistent with those of law enforcement. After all, we want the same thing—justice. But let’s make sure that the system works, well enough at least to catch the right person.
Some say that the exoneration of innocent people is proof that the system works. “If that were true, then justice is not being administered by our police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, or our courts. It is being dispensed by law students, journalism students, and a few concerned lawyers, organizations, and citizens” long after years of damage have been done. (5) Wrongfully convicting individuals is the bane of our society, one that adversely affects all of its citizens, whether directly or indirectly. “The possibility of a loved one languishing in jail or, worse [yet], being put to death for crimes they did not commit, should be intolerable” to us all. (6) As future jurors and voters, and as responsible citizens, we should, we must insist that the criminal justice system be held accountable for administering justice with integrity, fairness, and impartiality.
(1) Barry Scheck, Peter Nuefeld, Actual Innocence, Preface, Doubleday, 1st ed., Feb. 2000.
(2) Innocence Project Home Page, available at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/
(3) See About the Innocence Project, The Innocence Project, available at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/
(4) See The Wisconsin Innocence Project, available at: http://www.law.wisc.edu/fjr/innocence/index.htm
(5) Causes and Remedies of Wrongful Convictions, Innocence Project, available at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/
(6) About the Innocence Project, Innocence Project, available at: www.innocenceproject.org/about/index.php
Speech presented to the Madison Civics Club on February 25, 2006 by Attorney Sydne French.
Sydne French is a native Californian. She hales from the University of Wisconsin Law School and she graduated magna cum laude from the University of California, at Berkeley, with a major in clinical research psychology. Since coming to Wisconsin, she has represented criminal defendants in the Criminal Appeals Project, the Milwaukee Public Defender’s Office, and the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Her work has earned her the Baldwin Award for Excellence in Criminal Law.