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The Original Innocence Project, Freeing the Wrongly Accused Since 1948

Updated on June 18, 2020
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.


Freeing the Wrongly Accused Since 1948

The court of last resort is the last highest court available to a plaintiff or defendant in the appellate process of legal remedy. In America, this is often the US Supreme Court. In some cases, however, the appellate process is limited by US States and ends at a lower court.

The Court Of Last Resort is a television program and a book authored by attorney and mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. This promotion of the original Innocence Project was promoted via a partnership with Argosy Magazine, for whom Mr. Gardner had written several pieces. The project began in 1948, freed many of the wrongly accused, and was adopted as field practice by many law classes around America.

The project began in 1948, freed many of the wrongly accused, and was adopted as field practice by many law classes around America.

An American court room.
An American court room. | Source

"New U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that watching Perry Mason shows influenced her decision to become a prosecutor. Erle Stanley Gardner was a criminal lawyer for 18 years before he started to write...He was not only the author of the iconic Perry Mason character, the lonely justice-seeking attorney; but Gardner was also, in real-life, the founder of the 'Court of Last Resort', a predecessor to the current day 'Innocence Project'."

— Joseph Waters, Musical Composer of "The Passion of Perry Mason"

Freeing the Wrongly Convicted for Nearly 100 Years

Copies of the Gardner book series are sometimes available at auctions and collectible book sellers. Today's classrooms may tag the associated freedom project with different course names, but it is the program initiated after WWII, with improvements made since the inception of DNA evidence and other new technologies.

Justice Denied Magazine states that the original program died in the 1960s, but this is incorrect. The name died, but the project was taken up by sociology, criminology, and legal classes around the USA. In fact, I learned about the project in criminology class under Simon Dinitz (1926 - 2007), discussed below. I heard about how a more advanced class was working on such a case in the 1970s.

One of the early cases addressed by The Court Of Last Resort was the murder case that became the basis for TV's The Fugitive - the Dr. Sam Sheppard case in Cleveland Ohio. Polygraph tests likely showed false positives in that case and today, these types of tests are inadmissible in court. Other sorts of details result in wrong convictions as well.

The John Smith Case

One of the early cases addressed by The Court Of Last Resort was the murder case that became the basis for TV's The Fugitive - the Dr. Sam Sheppard case in Cleveland Ohio.

Incomplete and Lost History of Innocence Advocacy

A 21st century Hilary Swank film called Conviction (2010) highlights a case of wrongful conviction and its solution by means of the operation of the Innocence Project.

Because of this film, the public is led to believe that the Innocence Project (America and UK, also a BBC television program) was the first program established specifically in order to free the wrongfully convicted. It was not. The first project began in 1948.

The Court Of Last Resort, also a television series as well as a book and a successful ongoing project, was the first. The information in late 20th Century "landmark study" highlighted by some writers as showing that 70% of wrongful convictions are the result of incorrect eyewitness identification was already well known to Erle Stanley Gardner and his colleagues, the first modern criminal scientists of early-to-mid-20th Century.

In the first some subsequent editions of nearly every one of Gardner's mystery books, the attorney highlighted a different criminal scientist - including doctors, coroners, the first CSIs and others - and at least one element of the legal system; including wrongful conviction, professional witnesses, and many others. As a successful attorney working with criminal scientists of the 1920s - 1950s, his efforts helped to lay a foundation for today's science of criminology.

I was honored to study under two of the founders of Criminology in their last years - Walter Reckless and Simon Dinitz. In fact, Dr. Dinitz spoke of mistaken eyewitness accounts until his retirement in 1991, perhaps thereafter in guest lectures.

The Mary Morales Case

Members of college and law school classes have worked on freeing Death Row inmates who were wrongly convicted since the 1950s.

Cells in Alcatraz prison.
Cells in Alcatraz prison. | Source

Alabama Man Freed After Nearly 30 Years On Death Row (AP, by Kim Chandler; 4-3-2014): Ray Hinton was released from Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, where he was incarcerated at age 28. Much of his career lifetime is already gone, after a conviction in the 1985 murders of two fast-food restaurant managers. Crime scene bullets were the only evidence. Prosecutors now say that modern forensic methods do not show the fatal bullets were from Hinton's home, or even from the same gun.

Addition of DNA Evidence

Founded in 1992, the Innocence Project is the first such project to incorporate DNA evidence into its work.

Erle Stanley Gardner would be enormously pleased about this addition of DNA evidence and would promote the project more than any other single advocate would consider. However, his foundational work in freeing the wrongly accused must not be forgotten.

History is rewritten every time important events and entities are overlooked when decades or centuries pass and these events and entities are pushed further and further aside. This is how the Holocaust has been denied by those that would have us believe it did not exist; but, we still have living survivors of that event, along with film footage and written documentation to prove its atrocities.

While there exist lesser amounts of documentation of The Court Of Last Resort than for the Holocaust, and while criminology and law classes may continue their related case work under the name of the Innocence Project or no name at all, the documentation proving that Gardner began the original work is still available.

Every criminology and law class that undertakes a wrongful conviction case should be instructed in the foundation work of The Court Of Last Resort and the foundation and work of the Innocence Project. This should be done just as a judge gives instruction to a jury before sending them to deliberate a verdict in a case.

Criminology and law classes often adopt a Death Row case in the hopes of finding enough evidence to overturn an incorrectly delivered conviction. Occasionally, one of these cases is featured in a local newspaper as the conviction is overturned and the prisoner is freed.

The wrongly convicted on Death Row have hope.
The wrongly convicted on Death Row have hope. | Source

Modern Projects to Free the Wrongly Convicted

Various college criminology and law classes in the United States adopt a Death Row case each year in the hopes of finding enough evidence to overturn an incorrectly delivered conviction.

Occasionally, one of these cases is featured in a local newspaper as the conviction is overturned and the prisoner is freed. There is even a magazine for and about the wrongfully convicted, called Justice Denied.

Suite Noir: The Passion of Perry Mason (Movement 2: The Court of Last Resort) by Joseph Waters

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS


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