Everyone in jail claims to be innocent, but attorney and law professor Barry Scheck has proven that many of these convicted criminals may actually be telling the truth. Scheck is familiar to most as part of the team of lawyers who secured a not-guilty verdict for former football star O.J. Simpson. But his greater contribution to law and society has been his involvement with the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully incarcerated through DNA testing.
In his Big Think interview, Scheck tells us about co-founding the Innocence Project with Peter Neufeld in 1992. The two had pioneered the use of DNA testing in court cases in the late 1980s, and from the beginning they knew how revolutionary the technology would be for the field of law. “The truth is, we knew it would be transformative; we knew that it would have an enormous impact, not just in exonerating people who were wrongfully convicted, but in apprehending people who had really committed the crimes.” Scheck says he also saw it as “a learning moment so that we could figure out what causes wrongful convictions and how to prevent them.”
And the effects have indeed proven to be profound. Since its founding in 1992, the Innocence Project has not only exonerated 258 people, some of whom were on death row, it has “transformed the way that the criminal justice system looks at error and looks at the interrelationship of science and results,” says Scheck.
In light of these results one would expect DNA testing to more widespread, but Scheck tells us there has been considerable opposition to it, especially in the beginning. “People don’t like to admit they’re wrong,” he says. Not only does a reversed conviction require everyone to admit their mistake, it also forces the criminal justice system to tell the family of the wrongfully accused that their son, daughter, father, or mother is not the savage animal he or she was made out to be. There is also a reluctance to upset the victim, especially in cases of sexual assault where the victim has provided eyewitness testimony, which is the single greatest cause of mistaken convictions. Knowing that one’s testimony led to the conviction of an innocent person is “a horrible burden to carry,” says Scheck.
Many wrongful convictions also are a result of structural inefficiencies, says Scheck. “Any jurisdiction where there is not adequate funding for criminal defense lawyers is a jurisdiction at risk, and that is so many in this country. It’s a longstanding and continuing crisis that we do not adequately fund public defenders or court appointed lawyers because nothing guarantees the c
onviction of an innocent person more than a lawyer that is not adequately funded or not competent to do the job.”