How the Innocence Project Decides to Take a Case

Question: What inspired you to start challenging wrongful convictions?

Barry Scheck: I’ve been a law professor for 31 years at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law here in New York City, and when DNA testing began to get transferred from medial and research uses to the forensic arena, my colleague Peter Neufeld and I became very conversant with it in 1988, 1989.  In fact, we tried to get somebody out of prison who’d been convicted in the Bronx represented by the Public Defender’s Office where we used to work, and we tried to do DNA testing before it was even in the courts to prove that he was innocent.  He had been convicted of a rape and there were 17 alibi witnesses that he had at a prayer meeting.  But there were three eye witnesses, so he was convicted notwithstanding what appeared to be strong proof of his innocence.  And we tried to do DNA testing with a new private company named, Life Codes, but we couldn’t get any results and instead we were able to prove him innocent with other kinds of evidence. 

But at that time, everybody recognized that DNA was going to be very important, and Governor Mario Cuomo, in his last – one of his last acts in his administration, set up a commission to look at DNA testing and how it might effect the criminal justice system.  Now, we’re talking 1988, 1989.  And Peter and I were on that commission and we met a number of scientists, particular Dr. Yon Winkowski from Cold Spring Harbor, and he in turn introduced us to a number of scientists, in particular, Dr. Erick Lander, who was then part of the Whitehead Institute, MIT and Harvard and now is one of President Obama’s science advisors one of two or three science advisors.  And he is at the Broad Institute.  He was both a geneticist and a mathematician and a very brilliant guy.  And so he taught us a lot, not just about molecular biology, but also about how science works, technology transfers, and the interplay between scientific institutions – science and governmental institutions.  And it was sort of left to us to figure how this was to work in the court system. 

So, from the very beginning of learning about this technology, 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 apprehending people who had really committed the crimes, and just a learning moment so that we could figure out what causes wrongful convictions and how to prevent them.

Question: How does the Innocence Project decide which cases to take up? 

Barry Scheck: we do get hundreds of letters per week.  And we have still a cue – a waiting list of a few thousand people.  But our criteria is very simple.  For our project, the point is, if a DNA test could in and of itself prove you innocent.  And the way things work now, more than one DNA test.  Because when this technology was first transferred to the forensic arena, we were doing what they were known as Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism tests.  People would know those as “The Bands,” right.  And that was looking at nuclear DNA.  That would be a cell that has a nucleus and you would extract the DNA from the nucleus of the cell. 

Now, we have techniques using what’s known as **** Chain Reaction and this is – or PCR, and the best way to think about this, it’s molecular Xeroxing.  You can take a very, very small amount of starting material and amplify it up and you can look not just a nuclear DNA and the technique that’s now known is Short Tandem Repeat.  So there is using these so-called STRs or Tandem repeats, there is now a set of markers that are used for the database here in the United States, and they are also used in the United Kingdom and all over the world, frankly.  So we have one – developing one huge DNA database just based on this one particular Short Tandem Repeat system. 

But now we can also do what’s known as “Y” DNA testing, which is just looking at DNA from the Y chromosome, and you can amplify that up with a PCR.  And then there’s another technique called Mitochondrial DNA testing.

Mitochondrial DNA is a DNA test that literally looks at the mitochondrial within a cell.  It’s sort of the powerhouse of the cell.  And that’s maternally inherited.  So your mitochondrial DNA is the same as your mom’s and your brothers and sisters, unless something really weird is going on in your family.  

So, many, many different kinds of DNA tests have developed since we first came into business about 15 years ago, and that has enhanced our capability of answering the simple question that you asked me is, how do we decide to take a case?  And the simple answer is, well if DNA can prove you innocent.  But now we can do lots of different DNA tests and the methods of extraction have gotten much better, so it’s a misnomer.  People talk about touch DNA.  That’s really not helpful, but what is really meant there is that you can extract DNA from epithelial or skins cells, for example, that might be found on a piece of clothing or if the assailant left a sneaker or any kind of – a woolen hat or something where you might find saliva or skin cells or any piece of clothing, you can now take cuttings from various different parts of that clothing and develop a DNA profile of the “usual wearer.” 

So all of these different techniques, when combined together, I mean you get redundancy of results, can greatly assist in demonstrating that somebody didn’t commit the crime even when you’re looking at cases that are 10, 15, 20 or 30 years old.

Scheck's group will take up the case of a convicted prisoner if there is the possibility that a DNA test—or multiple DNA tests—could prove them innocent.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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