How to Talk About Innocence-Related Issues with Elected Officials, Organizations, Media, and Others

The phenomenon of wrongful convictions – the human stories involved, the factors that cause them, and the remedies that can prevent them – should hold the interest of virtually any listener. But policymakers, reporters and the general public have numerous issues vying for their attention, and they need to be presented with these issues in a way that engages them and compels them to get involved.

Working with policymakers, journalists, civic groups and others is critical for building a broader understanding of these issues and strengthening efforts to prevent wrongful convictions. This is where you can help, and in order to best enable you to reach these audiences, we provide the following notes about each.

Elected officials: Elected officials’ main concern is making voters feel like they’re being well served. Wrongful convictions – or even their potential – are simply bad government action, and virtually all policymakers want to be seen as working to avoid them. What’s more, they want their constituents (this means you) to feel like their specifically expressed concerns are being addressed. Therefore, if you arrange to meet with them or send a letter to raise your concerns about wrongful convictions and propose a well-supported specific policy remedy, you can gave a real impact on their potential action on these issues.

The media: Reporters of all stripes have a bottom line: present information of interest to their readers. That works to your favor, as innocence-related issues are of interest to many. The question, therefore, is what specific information reporters need for their story. They need to know: Why is the information newsworthy? Does it relate to a local issue, tell a good story, and/or raise questions about government policy – from a “new” angle? To the extent you can frame what you’re offering to them in a way that addresses that concern, they will be very interested to hear what you have to share.

Civic groups: Across the spectrum from the Grey Panthers to Rotary Clubs to college student groups, civic organizations want to make their communities a better place. Since no one is served by a wrongful conviction, all such groups are concerned about them in some way. What’s more, civic organizations are typically seeking speakers on different and interesting topics. When considering a presentation before a civic organization, ask yourself how wrongful convictions relate to the group’s mission, and tailor the theme of your presentation appropriately. For example, a Chamber of Commerce is concerned with business. You might want to suggest that if a business ignored important problems – particularly when the remedies were available – it’d be out of business, and that we can’t allow our government to similarly ignore tragic failures like wrongful convictions.

Regardless of your audience, bear in mind these fundamental points about any audience:

1. Respect your audience
Remember that people react better to positive urgings than to guilt and negativity; speak to the best motivations in your audience, even if that means giving them the benefit of the doubt. While your audience is eager to learn more about wrongful convictions, they already have some level of awareness; acknowledge their existing understanding of these issues. Your audience may even have a personal connection; they may have a loved one in prison, they may know a crime victim, or they may have been wrongly accused of a crime in the past.

2. Know your subject
You don’t need to be the world’s expert on the subject, but you do need to know the specific subject you’re addressing better than your audience does (even if the audience’s general knowledge of the subject is broader than yours), at least for the amount of time you’re speaking. When you approach the audience with confidence in your knowledge of the topic, there’s no reason to be nervous about what you say – and you can expect that the audience will want to hear it. Your audience has asked you to speak about the subject because they believe you have something to say.

3. Contextualize your presentation to convey the significance of the issues
Typically, it is highly effective to talk about DNA exonerations, and then to explain that these cases provide an extremely valuable data set that exposes the flaws in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions. It is also important to help your audience understand that nobody knows for sure how many innocent people are in prison – and that only 5-10% of all cases involve DNA (and of that small set of cases, many involve evidence that has been lost or destroyed, so DNA testing is no longer possible).

4. Speak about broad themes, but support your ideas with specific examples or statistics
View case examples and statistics on DNA exonerations and the causes of wrongful convictions. Whether you are speaking to one legislator or to 100 Kiwanis Club members, you can provide critical context by giving a sense of the “big picture” – don’t just say that eyewitness misidentification is a problem, explain that 75% of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA involve erroneous identification, and cite examples of cases in or near your state where people were convicted based on eyewitness misidentification.

5. Balance information on the problem with ideas for solutions
For any audience, it is important to cover both the problem and the solution. After discussing the existence of wrongful convictions and what causes them – talk about how we can prevent them in the future. The Innocence Project’s Fact Sheets on priority areas include information on the causes of wrongful convictions, specific reforms that can address them and success in jurisdictions that have already adopted the reforms. Click here to see all of the Fact Sheets, which can be useful in framing your presentation, and which you can copy and distribute for any audience.

6. Make it clear that addressing wrongful convictions is in everyone’s interests

Many law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims, criminal justice leaders and others support efforts to exonerate innocent people and prevent wrongful convictions. It’s critical for your audience to hear that these issues impact entire communities, and that reforming the criminal justice system benefits everyone. Explain that these issues enjoy broad support because public confidence in the criminal justice system is diminished when innocent people are convicted and true perpetrators remain at large.

7. When possible, ask your audience to take specific action

After you have discussed wrongful convictions, their causes, and reforms that can prevent them, your audience will most likely be primed to get more involved. If you are talking with a legislator, you might be asking for support on a particular bill; if not, you can ask the legislator to make these issues a priority. Similarly, if you are not talking about specific coverage with a reporter, you can ask that he or she keep these issues at the forefront. If you are speaking to an organization, you can encourage your audience to go to www.innocenceproject.org and register to receive regular updates on DNA exonerations and efforts to reform the system.

8. Follow up after the meeting or presentation 
It’s important to know your subject, but also to recognize what you don’t know. If you are asked about something you don’t know, it is completely appropriate to say something like, “That’s beyond my expertise,” or, “I am not certain” – and then tell them that you will find the information they need and get it to them soon. In addition to following up with any information you couldn’t provide during the meeting or presentation, you should stay in touch with the legislator, journalist or speech organizer. Passing along articles or new information as it becomes available can be an effective way of keeping these issues at the forefront of their minds, while also reminding them that they can come back to you for more on the subject.

Whether you’re meeting with a policymaker, reaching out to a journalist or preparing for a speech, the Innocence Project can provide additional background and assistance. (The Innocence Project also helps schedule DNA exonerees for speaking engagements, for an honorarium to compensate the exoneree for his time.) Email us at info@innocenceproject.org for assistance.