Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld began their careers as public defenders at the Bronx Legal Aid Society. A decade later, they made a discovery about the potential of DNA evidence to exonerate innocent defendants. In time, that discovery led to the founding of an organization that has freed scores of innocent prisoners and revolutionized the criminal justice system. Here, the co-founders discuss their collaboration and their friendship.
Innocence Project In Print: You wrote screenplays together in the days before the Innocence Project?
Barry Scheck: We also had teleplays optioned. If those had been picked up, it’s unclear whether we would have had an Innocence Project. We probably would have been making bad television. What can I tell you?
P: He would have made bad television. I would not have made television.
B: Peter would’ve made great movies. I would’ve been satisfied making LA Law.
IP: Thankfully you created the Innocence Project instead. What was the initial response?
B: We got hundreds of letters because of the Phil Donahue show, which resulted in quite a number of early exonerations. We realized from the beginning that we had to develop a larger structure and a network of projects to deal with the onslaught of prisoners reaching out to us because they were correctly claiming they were innocent.
IP: If the Innocence Project is the court of last resort, how do you tell someone who has few other options and is facing life imprisonment that you can't help them?
|“We have a real solid basis for believing that the biggest changes and the most transformative events are ahead of us.”|
P: Very few cases involve biological evidence, relatively speaking. So if there’s a drive-by shooting, there’s no blood splattered; if there’s a robbery, there’s no semen collected. And yet, the causes of wrongful convictions – eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, jailhouse informants, police or prosecutorial misconduct, poor defense lawyering – exist in all those cases. There are tens of thousands of cases of innocent people and we can’t do a damn thing about it because it doesn’t involve DNA, and that’s terribly frustrating. We can, and do, attempt to secure other counsel for them, particularly in capital cases that lack evidence for DNA testing.
B: On the other hand, that’s why we developed the policy network, and that’s why we have such a strong policy department. We’re trying to change the methods that police departments use for eyewitness identification and for interrogations, get access to the DNA databases, and change forensic science.
P: But we don’t have a fix for racism. Those kinds of institutional problems continue, and unless people think much more creatively, they will persist.
IP: How do you cope with that? How do you help each other cope?
B: We’re very lucky. We’ve been able to change institutions in ways that we never had a right to dream was possible, and frankly, we have a real solid basis for believing that the biggest changes and the most transformative events are ahead of us.
IP: Such as?
B: We’ve been able to get institutions in place (and even federal and state legislation) that mandates audits whenever there is a serious act of negligence or misconduct in a crime lab to follow up and see how many other bad tests there are. The FBI now agrees that they have a duty to correct cases where their agents in prior cases have testified in a fashion that they now recognize is not scientifically reliable. District Attorneys’ offices are beginning to recognize that they have an obligation to go back and find other cases, make sure it doesn’t happen again, and if necessary discipline the person. We don’t have real quality assurance in the criminal justice system, and it’s our idea that we systematically go about bringing that examination to the entire system.
P: Quality assurance programs are not just a matter of civil rights or human rights, they’re also a matter of public safety. Every time an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, the real perpetrator could still be out there committing more violent crimes.
IP: What have you learned from each other?
P: When you meet somebody who you know will watch your back, and who you know that if you can’t be there to do what you want to do, that he’ll do it as well, or even better – that’s very special.
B: Especially when you do this kind of work, because there’s a lot of blow back, so you have to have a strong partner who you trust and know is going to get the job done.
Watch a series of video interviews with Barry and Peter, created for our 20th anniversary.