The Innocence Project: More Than a Name
DNA Testing Has Restored Innocent Lives
The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future justice. Last month, July, 2013, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers committed to come together with the FBI and the Department of Justice to review thousands of microscopic hair analysis cases processed by the FBI between the years of 1985 and 2000. They will also review an undetermined number of cases from previous years. This decision of collaboration was born after three men who had already served long prison sentences were exonerated by DNA testing that wasn't available at the time of their trials and sentencing. The Innocence Project itself was founded in 1992 and since that time has successfully proved the innocence of more than two dozen New York prisoners who were falsely convicted and incarcerated.
DNA testing becoming available has been a lifesaving tool in many cases. Before DNA testing the prosecutors relied on microscopic hair analysis which, in 2009, was branded "highly unreliable" by the National Academy of Science in their forensic science report. Quite simply, there are too many people that could be considered the bearer of a specific hair. In other words, no one could narrow it down to only one specific individual. How could someone be convicted on what seems to be a "best guess"? But, in probably more cases than we will ever know, it was done.
The Other Side of the Coin
The fact that microscopic hair analysis is scientifically inaccurate is a major breakthrough for prisoners in this country who are incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit. It is also a major breakthrough in our justice system. The fact that prosecutors and defense lawyers have agreed to come together to prove the innocence of people who have been serving time for, in some cases, decades, gives new hope to people who may have long ago given up. Many of them, knowing their own innocence, have lost years of their lives that can never be given back to them or to their families.
But, there is more. The flip side of the innocent/guilty coin is, while the innocent have been locked away, the real criminal is still living free. There have been cases where, while an innocent man or woman has been serving someone else's time, the guilty party has continued his or her reign of terror. Partly responsible is human error. Partly responsible is the fact that, made up of human beings, the government can only work with the best that science has to give them at any point in time. I concede that no human being is perfect. But, isn't it a travesty when a person's innocence is in the hands of a stranger who has the power to decide their fate? A person in authority whose tunnel vision has more to do with the advancement of his or her career than with what will happen to some poor individual whose name will be forgotten as soon as the iron gate closes behind him.
The breakthrough in science, DNA testing, the Innocence Project, and the collaboration now between government and law enforcement agencies are wonderful events. But there is a question that still haunts me. What about the many people whose innocence cannot be proven through DNA testing? There have admittedly been coerced confessions, shady deals, and false testimonies that have been instrumental in putting away innocent people. What will be done about their release in their own lifetime?
Beyond the Innocence Project?
I know a man who has, as of this writing, served 22 years of a 40-to-life sentence. He, of course, claims innocence, and has stood by that claim for all these years. Having read his court documents for myself, I saw multiple inconsistencies that proved his innocence to me over and over again. Witnesses openly perjured themselves, with no reaction from the lawyers on the case, and no reaction from the judge. Stories were changed by witnesses after offers were made of release from jail upon agreeing to turn over names the authorities suggested were probably involved in the crime. From what I was told this prisoner's interview and statement were recorded in the interrogation room; however, when it came to producing the recording, authorities claimed it had never been made. This man, who became a prisoner that day, is living with the knowledge in his mind and heart that he himself saw them playing the tape back in another room after his interrogation. Where is the justice in this?
The Innocence Project is a wonderful thing, a life saver for the incredibly lucky people who benefit by it. But, what about those who are innocent, who were not convicted through microscopic hair analysis? DNA testing will probably not be their savior. For some, they themselves are the only ones who know. We can only hope that modern technology will give birth to another ground-breaking procedure somewhere in their lifetime.