Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, a national organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and implements policy reforms to prevent future injustice. Founded in 1988 under the auspices of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds through post-conviction DNA testing. Scheck is also famous for having defended notable clients like O.J. Simpson, Hedda Nussbaum, Louise Woodward, and Abner Louima.
Scheck is currently a professor of law at Cardozo and a commissioner on New York's Forensic Science Review Board, a body that regulates all of the state's crime and forensic DNA laboratories. He is first vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and serves on the board of the National Institute of Justice's Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. In 2001, along with Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, Scheck co-authored the book "Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted."
Question: How many wrongful convictions have been overturned as a result of the Innocence Project's work?
Barry Scheck: That’s 258 cases I believe as we are sitting here today of post-conviction DNA exonerations. But there are many other cases involving people who were actually sentenced to death in this country, and you can find those on the Death Penalty Information Center website, where there’s substantial proof that innocent people were convicted, but they’ve been exonerated with evidence other than DNA. So, what happened since the Innocence Project really went into business in 1992 is really a movement, a civil rights movement, an innocence movement that is really transformed the way that the criminal justice system looks at error and looks at the interrelationship of science and results. And the one thing we know, because of post-conviction DNA tests is that there are far more innocent people than anybody ever really believed.
Question: What percentage of the cases that you take turn out to have been wrongful convictions?
Barry Scheck: Well, we can give you – and we have posted a pretty precise set of statistics on the number of cases that we take where DNA could prove that somebody’s innocent. It varies because, you know, in most cases – well in many cases, we can’t find the evidence, it’s been lost or destroyed. Remember, we are looking at cases that are 20 or 30 years old. It goes in cycles. In the last few years, about half the time, when somebody writes to us and says, DNA is going to prove me innocent, then we get the case to the lab, meaning we find the evidence, and then we get the test results, about half the time, you know, we can demonstrate their innocence with the DNA test. Sometimes we get no results and sometimes, they’re guilty.
Question: Are some kinds of cases or defendants more likely to result in wrongful convictions?
Barry Scheck: Well, this is a very good question because when Peter Neufeld and I started in this business, we’d been criminal defense lawyers and worked on all kinds of criminal cases. I’ve been a professor. I’ve been doing this for 31 years and training a lot of prosecutors and stayed in the Federal Courts, so I thought I was pretty experienced when it came to looking at cases. And very often I will look at one and I’ll say, “Ah, based on what we know about the causes of wrongful conviction, this sure looks like a bad eye witness identification case.” Or there’s all kinds of evidence here that indicates to me that – I’ll bet this one is going to come out innocent. Right? Did an exculpatory DNA result. And then there’s other ones where I’ll say, “Well, you know, we’re taking this case because in theory, the DNA could prove this individual innocent, but boy they look really guilty to me. I mean, look at all this other corroborating evidence and there’s fingerprint here and there’s all kinds of other evidence.” And were wrong. And that’s the most important thing to know.
We who work within the criminal justice system where the life and liberty of the people are at stake have to have some humility. That’s really what these DNA exonerations are teaching us.
My prosecutor friends and judges will tell you that there are a whole host of cases among these 258 where nobody ever believed that the individual was innocent. But then after the DNA exonerates them and we go back and we deconstruct the case, we find there were all kinds of people who were lying or it turns out that certain forensic techniques that we thought were highly reliable, are not. And things weren’t what they appeared to be.
So I think it’s a really important take home lesson that you have to be humble about these things and that, you know, we really don’t know as much as we think we do about results in the criminal justice system for sure.