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  April 4, 2000

Wrongful Convictions Reflect Flaws
in System, Say Attorneys

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld are proud of the part they've played in freeing wrongly convicted inmates, yet they are more concerned with how the innocent people ended up in prison.

During a visit to the law school on March 22, Scheck and Neufeld spoke about their work to free the wrongly accused; the recently published book about their experiences, Actual Innocence; and their desire to have others join their crusade. Scheck is well known for his work with such high-profile defendants as O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward.

In 1989, Scheck and Neufeld, along with law students at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, set out to prove that an inmate was innocent. After successfully overturning the conviction, Scheck and Neufeld founded the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law in 1992.

The pro bono civil rights organization helps innocent people who have been unjustly imprisoned win their freedom through DNA testing. According to Scheck, an FBI statistic shows that 25 percent of the primary suspects arrested or indicted for rape or rape/homicide have been exonerated with DNA testing.

In North America, 70 people - 64 of them in the United States - have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. The Innocence Project has assisted with more than half of those cases, Scheck said.

In Actual Innocence, Scheck, Neufeld and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Dwyer tell the stories of 10 of the men they have helped.

"How they got into jail is the story, not how they got out," Scheck said.

Neufeld said the book is part of a larger movement examining problems with the criminal justice system and the need to reform it. "What went wrong with the criminal justice system, to let 70 people who were stone-cold innocent go to prison?" Neufeld asked.

Often, innocent people end up in prison because of mistaken eyewitness identifications, false confessions, or prosecutorial or police misconduct, he said. To right these wrongs, Scheck and Neufeld suggested that independent panels be formed to examine wrongful convictions and that reforms be put in place to minimize them.

To help further, the two are attempting to set up a nationwide innocence network to re-open cases in which they believe the wrong people were convicted, and investigate what went wrong in cases where prisoners were later exonerated. During their visit to the law school, the two lawyers invited students to join the innocence network.

"This is a simple plan of accountability," Scheck said, "that can change a great deal."

Allison Thompson