The Story and Purpose of the Innocence Project

Innocence Project Statistics Show That Wrongful Convictions Happen Too Often

The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project - Peter J. Neufeld (L) Barry C. Scheck (R). Andy Kropa / Getty Images

The Innocence Project examines cases in which DNA testing could yield conclusive proof of innocence. To date, there have been over 330 people who served an average of 14 years in prison that have been exonerated and released through post-conviction DNA testing. Included in this number are 20 people who were awaiting execution while serving time on death row.

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law located in New York City. Designed as a non-profit legal clinic, the Project gives law students the opportunity to handle the casework, while being supervised by a team of attorneys and clinic staff. The Project handles thousands of applications each year from inmates seeking its services.

Project Takes Only DNA Cases

"Most of our clients are poor, forgotten, and have used up all of their legal avenues for relief," the project website explains. "The hope they all have is that biological evidence from their cases still exists and can be subjected to DNA testing."

Before The Innocence Project will take a case, it subjects the case to extensive screening to determine if DNA testing would prove the inmate's claim of innocence. Thousands of cases may be in this evaluation process at any given time.

Wrongful Convictions Overturned

The advent of modern DNA testing has literally changed the criminal justice system. DNA cases have provided proof that innocent people are convicted and sentenced by the courts.

"DNA testing has opened a window into wrongful convictions so that we may study the causes and propose remedies that may minimize the chances that more innocent people are convicted," The Innocence Project says.

The success of the Project and the subsequent publicity that it has received due to its involvement in some high-profile cases have allowed the clinic to expand beyond its original purpose.

The clinic has also helped to organize The Innocence Network -- a group of law schools, journalism schools, and public defender officers who help inmates trying to prove their innocence -- whether or not DNA evidence is involved.

Common Causes of Wrongful Convictions

The following are the common reasons for wrongful convictions of the first 325 people exonerated through DNA testing are:

Eyewitness Misidentification:
- Occurred in 72 percent / 235 of the cases
Although research has shown that eyewitness identification is often unreliable, it is also some of the most convincing evidence that is presented to a judge or a jury.

Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
- Occurred in 47 percent / 154 of the cases
The Innocence Project defines unvalidated or improper forensic science as:

  • Using forensic techniques that lack testing that proves that the results are valid or reliable.
  • Testimony about forensic evidence that is inaccurate or lacks empirical data that supports the testimony.
  • Fabricating inculpatory data or failing to disclose exculpatory data.

False Confessions or Admissions
- Occurred in 27 percent / 88 of the cases
In a disturbing number of DNA exoneration cases, defendants have made incriminating statements or delivered outright false confessions. These cases demonstrate that a confession or admission is not always prompted by internal knowledge or guilt, but may be motivated by external influences.

Informants or Snitches
- Occurred in 15 percent / 48 of the cases
In several cases, important evidence was presented by prosecutors from informants that were given incentives in exchange for their statements. The jury was often unaware of the exchange.

DNA Exonerations Increase

  • Causes and Remedies of Wrongful Convictions
    The pace of post-conviction DNA exonerations continues to grow. Not only has DNA testing proved that these individuals are innocent, it has also shown that our criminal justice system makes mistakes that leave true perpetrators on the streets.
  • Innocence Project CasesDetails on more than 337 cases that have been handled by The Innocence Project.