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Professional News
Hundreds Regain Freedom Thanks to Innocence Project
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 14 page 13-21

New York City defense attorney Barry Scheck, J.D., is probably best known to the American public through the 1995 murder trial of former professional football player O.J. Simpson. Scheck was part of the team that defended Simpson.

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Barry Scheck, J.D., is a cofounder of the Innocence Project, which led to similar programs whose work has won the exoneration and release of 271 prisoners because of DNA testing. 

Credit: David Hathcox

But Scheck has done something else of which the public is less aware but has had a profound impact on American society. That achievement was launching a project in 1992 that uses DNA testing to exculpate people who have been erroneously convicted and imprisoned.

The project is called the Innocence Project, and Scheck cofounded it with defense lawyer Peter Neufeld, J.D., at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law. Today, the Innocence Project is an independent nonprofit organization closely affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.

The establishment of the Innocence Project also paved the way for similar programs to be founded throughout the United States. Today there are 68 of them, and thanks to the total efforts of these programs, 271 prisoners have been exonerated through DNA testing and released from U.S. prisons, Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project, told Psychiatric News. "And I would say that we've consulted in the vast majority of those 271," he added.

Moreover, of the 271 exonerated prisoners, 17 were scheduled to be executed, and the actual perpetrators have been identified in 120 of these cases, Scheck reported at the APA's 2011 annual meeting in Honolulu in May.

One of their major success stories, Scheck said, was depicted in the movie "Conviction," in which a man from a rough background was wrongly convicted of and imprisoned for murder, and in which his sister went to law school expressly to gain the skills to prove his innocence. Ultimately, with the help of the Innocence Project, she managed to do so.

The numerous similar DNA-testing programs have also led to changes in the U.S. criminal justice system that should help keep innocent people from being convicted and imprisoned in the first place, Cates said.

For example, the leading cause of wrongful convictions is misidentification, and 11 states have passed laws regarding police practices with respect to identification procedures. The laws specify, for example, that the police officer administering a photo or live lineup should not know who the suspect is, and the witness should be told that the officer does not know.

Another major cause of wrongful convictions is false confessions. Eleven states have passed legislation requiring the videotaping of police interrogations so the process can be viewed if questions arise about their legitimacy.

"And the easiest first thing we were able to do," Cates explained, "which has proven to be extremely useful, is that 48 states now have laws that grant post-conviction DNA testing that allows people to prove their innocence. When we started, there was really no procedure for getting into court to get DNA testing."

But some pressing challenges remain. For instance, it is yet to be determined how many of the some 2 million people currently in U.S. prisons are innocent, Scheck said.

And how about the psychological suffering endured by innocent prisoners during their many years of confinement? Scheck asked. A lot of his organization's clients thought they were going to be let off because they were innocent. When they finally realized that they were going to prison for years, perhaps forever, the realization was excruciating for them.

And then there is the challenge of filing wrongful conviction lawsuits on behalf of exonerated prisoners who have been released, Scheck reported. "These are hard cases to get through the legal system," and whether they succeed depends to a large degree on the help of forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who can convince juries of the dire psychological suffering exonerated prisoners had to endure and still endure after prison release.

So at this juncture, the Innocence Project has two key missions, Cates explained: "To use DNA testing to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted and to use these stories and the lessons learned from these stories to advocate for reforms to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place."

"As a correctional psychiatrist, I am very familiar with the impact of incarceration on individuals, especially those with mental illness," Elizabeth Ford, M.D., director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at New York University, told Psychiatric News. "I have been very impressed with the care that the Innocence Project takes in considering the mental health issues of its clients from appeal to release. You could tell from Professor Scheck's lecture at the APA meeting that he cares deeply about his clients and believes strongly in his mission. This passion appears evident throughout the project, and I am sure it is in large part why the project is so successful."

Information about the Innocence Project is posted at <www.innocenceproject.org>.13_1.inline-graphic-1.gif

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Barry Scheck, J.D., is a cofounder of the Innocence Project, which led to similar programs whose work has won the exoneration and release of 271 prisoners because of DNA testing. 

Credit: David Hathcox

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