The case against Cornelius Dupree rested on witness identification — and the witnesses got it wrong. Exonerated in 2011, he is one of 36 Texans cleared through DNA testing after he was misidentified and falsely convicted. In February, Dupree joined the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and a dozen other exonerees at the Texas capitol to testify in support of a bill that would require police to adopt written guidelines for identification procedures. “We need to minimize the number of people falling into the same trap I did,” Dupree said.
Recent Virginia exoneree Thomas Haynesworth got caught in that trap as well. He was misidentified not once, but five times by victims of a Richmond-area serial rapist. Haynesworth, who was was 18 years old at arrest, was freed in March, on his 46th birthday, and later exonerated based on DNA and other evidence of his innocence. Individual exoneration cases like these have exposed the fallibility of eyewitness evidence and led to greater acceptance of reforming police lineups and other identification procedures. In fact, erroneous identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing.
Exonerees, law enforcement, legislators and social scientists partner with the Innocence Project to build a compelling argument for reform. In 2011, support for identification reforms grew by leaps and bounds. Five states, including Texas and Virginia, took action to reduce the rate of eyewitness misidentification. In addition, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that will require judges to scrutinize police identification procedures and enhance jury instructions. By 2017, the Innocence Project hopes to have established eyewitness identification reforms in the majority of states.
Collaborating with Law Enforcement
Rebecca Brown, Senior Policy Advocate for State Affairs »
The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking work and extraordinary results place us in a unique position to fashion a system that stands for the justice and equality under law that is the hallmark of our democracy. We have helped pass 85 state and federal laws enacting reforms that prevent wrongful convictions and strengthen the criminal justice system.
In addition to eyewitness identification reforms, the Innocence Project advocates for mandatory electronic recording of interrogations to prevent false confessions, preservation of biological crime scene evidence, improved access to DNA databases and DNA testing, compensation for the exonerated and more. Using a disciplined and systematic approach, the Innocence Project builds consensus for criminal justice reforms in state after state while working with Innocence Network partners. Our vision of a better criminal justice system resonates with policymakers and with police, who recognize that preventing wrongful convictions not only protects innocent defendants but also improves public safety by increasing the likelihood that the real perpetrator will be brought to justice.
On the federal level, the Innocence Project advances a strategy to strengthen the forensic sciences. Common problems such as the use of non-scientific forensic analyses or lack of oversight are best addressed though national standards and the creation of a federally funded scientific entity. The Innocence Project is also working with with national and state-based organizations to develop solutions for addressing unethical and ineffective lawyers.
The current system is failing at the most fundamental levels, and failing everyone — the individuals caught up in the system, and the public that invests billions of dollars every year in institutions and processes that too often are neither just nor effective. In the coming year, the Innocence Project will continue our work to forge a criminal justice system worthy of our democracy’s highest ideals.
We are committed to partnering with folks who see the criminal justice system from a myriad of angles — working with all individuals affected by crime. The Innocence Project and those who work in the victim services field share a common respect for humanity. That’s a common ground — recognizing the human and making sure that our processes are humane. The great successes of the Innocence Project — exonerating the innocent — still carry a heavy weight for the victims. There’s usually massive trauma for the victims and their families for all kinds of reasons. They’re in fear because it means that the real person is out there; if identification was involved, the victim may have to grapple with the psychological impact of having misidentified someone; they may have their faith in the system shaken. At the same time, when someone is wrongly convicted, you have to recognize that they, too, have been a victim.