2010: Freeing the Innocent, Fixing the System
It has been a big year at the Innocence Project, and we're gearing up for more exonerations and reforms in 2011.
Earlier this year, DNA testing led to the exoneration of our client Freddie Peacock (above) 34 years after he was convicted of a rape he didn't commit. He was the 250th person exonerated through DNA evidence in the United States, marking a milestone for the innocence movement.
In addition, our policy team helped to pass historic comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation in Ohio, Alaska became the 48th state to enact a law granting access to post-conviction DNA testing and we persuaded the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the state's eyewitness identification procedures to reflect new social science research.
On Monday, the Innocence Network published a report detailing the 29 people exonerated in 2010 through the work of member organizations. These 29 individuals served a combined 426 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit before they were set free. DNA testing proved innocence for 12 individuals. The remaining 17 were exonerated by other evidence. Unfortunately, their cases are only the tip of the iceberg, with countless innocent people spending the holidays behind bars. We'll be working in 2011 to free as many as possible.
The Innocence Project is a founding member of the Innocence Network, which includes more than 60 organizations around the world working to overturn wrongful convictions and reform policies to prevent injustice.
Read the 2010 Innocence Network report here.
Texas Appeals Court Delays Death Penalty Hearing
A Texas judge this month held an unprecedented hearing on whether capital cases in the state carry an unconstitutional risk of executing an innocent person. Attorneys for John Edward Green, who is charged with capital murder, argued that Texas' system is inherently unreliable and that Texas has executed innocent people.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck was scheduled to present evidence in the case, but the hearing was suddenly halted by an appeals court after two days. Acting on an emergency motion from prosecutors, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put the hearing on hold so both parties could file additional briefs. Those briefs are due Thursday. Read more about the case on the Innocence Blog.
Before the hearing was delayed, Scheck had planned to present evidence about the cases of Claude Jones (above left) and Cameron Todd Willingham (above right), both of whom were executed in Texas based on faulty evidence.
Forensics in Flux
Reports of flawed forensics and evidence mishandling continued to surface across the country this month, with the Innocence Project renewing calls for federal forensic oversight to prevent wrongful convictions.
The troubled San Francisco Police Department crime lab suffered another blow with reports last week that lab officials secretly destroyed reports of evidence mishandling in the lab and that prosecutors had hidden a report detailing allegations that a lab analyst withheld key DNA evidence from a grand jury in a murder case.
In New York, a lab was placed on probation by an accrediting agency after an audit turned up more than a dozen failures to meet standards.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission met last week in Austin. The panel is slated to hear from arson experts January 7 in its investigation of the questionable evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Video of the complete January 7 hearing will be streamed live on our website.
The Innocence Project is a member of the Just Science Coalition, which supports the creation of an independent science-based forensic entity that directs and funds research in forensic sciences, sets standards and enforces those standards.
Why I Give: A Donor Profile
Rev. Earl W. Koteen
Consulting Minister for Climate Change
Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California
Going to seminary and seeing the movie "After Innocence" were the sparks that led me to support the Innocence Project.
Prior to seminary, I assumed that nearly all people accused of crimes were guilty. Taking courses in social work and working with ministers, therapists and the mentally ill, I learned that false accusations are much more common than I had ever imagined. I learned that memories aren't locked in place, they're fluid and can change during therapy sessions and interrogations. I learned many things that led me to believe that many people are falsely accused, and some are falsely convicted. I also learned that such false convictions are most frequent among the disadvantaged.
The documentary "After Innocence" had a profound impact on me. The most poignant characters in the documentary were Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson. Jennifer had erroneously identified Ronald as the perpetrator who broke into her house and sexually assaulted her. A decade later, after DNA testing had proven Ronald innocent and pointed to the real perpetrator, they became close friends and joined forces to prevent future wrongful convictions. They wrote about their experiences in the book "Picking Cotton." The depth of their healing was moving and miraculous.
The work of the Innocence Project challenges common assumptions about our criminal justice system and forces us to accept that the system doesn't always get it right. I am so grateful for the wonderful work of this organization and proud to call myself a supporter.
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