News Release ~ 11/20/1997

Initiative to Free the Innocent Expanding

Law Schools Throughout Nation Embrace Campaign

Washington, DC (November 20, 1997) -- "Countless innocent Americans are behind bars or on death row for crimes that they didn't commit. Law schools and journalism schools are often in the best position to correct these grave injustices, as we've seen in Illinois where more people have been freed from death row than have been executed," noted Gerald Lefcourt, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), in announcing a major campaign to expand the existing Innocence Project to law schools and journalism schools nationwide.

The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 at Cardozo Law School in New York City by Professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, is alone responsible for freeing from prison more than 30 wrongly-convicted citizens. "We are deluged with hundreds of requests each week for help to prove people's innocence. Clearly, we need more resources to do so," Scheck said.

"It is a critical time to expand the Innocence Project," Scheck explained, "because of several important recent events. First, the ongoing F.B.I. crime lab scandal exposed rampant mishandling of scientific evidence within the nation's most prestigious crime-fighting organization. They showed a predisposition to convict persons who are likely innocent. Second, an unusually candid Department of Justice publication, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated By Science (1996), revealed that scores of Americans have gone to prison unjustly. And, in July of this year, the Death Penalty Information Center disclosed that, since 1973, at least 69 innocent death row inmates have been spared executions."

Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld stated that "Thousands of innocent people are languishing in prison for crimes they didn't commit. These citizens' most basic rights to life and liberty have been quashed by an egregious failure of our criminal justice system. Innocent Project centers are the last hope, not only for the victims, but also for the very concept of justice as we know it."

"So far, we've seen incredible enthusiasm and interest among law school deans and professors, as well as clinical law programs" said Cheryl Amitay, NACDL's Special Counsel for Legislative and Public Affairs and coordinator of the new initiative to expand the project. "Law schools throughout the country are offended by gross miscarriages of justice and many are now committing to provide their students with the opportunity to help weed them out."

University of Missouri (in Kansas City) Adjunct Professor Sean O'Brien notes that, "Law students are offended too. If law schools don't make the commitment to satisfy students' overwhelming need, it won't be undertaken by anyone. I have a 12" stack of letters from prisoners who profess innocence but have no money, and no where to turn. I've personally worked on three capital cases where there was compelling evidence of innocence and yet two of the three prisoners were executed anyway. The most excruciating ordeal I've ever been through was the execution of an innocent client."

Likewise, Professor Fran Hardy of Indiana University said her law school "jumped at the chance" to be involved. "The Innocence Project adds an important dimension to law students' learning. It will instill a more complete picture of what justice looks like and challenge the decidedly false assumption that everyone who goes to prison is guilty."

Jerome Deise, clinical professor at University of Maryland Law School and a long-time public defender, views the establishment of an Innocence Project Center on campus as an important addition to their criminal defense clinic. The law schools at New York University, DePaul University, Georgetown University, and the University of Washington have likewise expressed keen interest in forming their own Innocence Project Centers. 

Among recent examples of the Innocence Project's successes are the following:

  • New York Nightmare 

A jury in Westchester County, NY convicted Terry Chalmers of rape, sodomy, robbery and two counts of grand larceny on June 9, 1987. He was sentenced to 12-24 years in prison.

After an unsuccessful appeal, at Chalmers urging, Innocence Project lawyers obtained blood samples from both Chalmers and the victim, as well as physical evidence from the original rape kit. The evidence was forwarded to the Forensic Science Associates (FSA) for DNA testing. The FSA's two reports, released in July, 1994, resulted in the determination that Chalmers could be eliminated as the source of semen on the two swabs collected from the original rape kit. Chalmer's conviction was vacated, the charges dismissed, and he was released from prison in April 1995, after serving 8 years for a crime he did not commit.

  • When "Unlikely"Is Unjust 

A Nelson County, VA court convicted Edward Honaker of seven counts of sexual assault, sodomy and rape. He was sentenced to three life sentences plus 34 years even though the prosecution's case was suspect, featuring a forensic expert's vague testimony that hair found on the victim's shorts "was unlikely to match anyone" other than Honaker.

It did match somebody else. After making several pleas for forensic testing to prove Honnaker's innocence, Centurian Ministries, a national group devoted to exonerating the innocent, discovered that trial testimony had been hypnotically induced and, further, that Honoker's 1976 vasectomy was not satisfactorily raised. At this point, the Innocence Project lawyers filed a motion to compel the authorities to release evidence for DNA testing. The prosecution also cooperated, providing another sample, and both were sent to the FSA for testing. The results conclusively showed that neither the victim's boyfriend nor Mr. Honaker could have been the source of the sperm contained in the semen samples. Still, Honaker's freedom was delayed, as Virginia law prohibits the introduction of new evidence more than 21 days after a trial's conclusion. Governor George Allen finally signed Honaker's pardon on October 21, 1994, after he was unjustly imprisoned for 10 years.

  • Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied 

Brian Piszczek was convicted in a Cuyahoga County, Ohio court in July 1991 of burglary, felonious assault and the rape of a woman. He was sentenced to 15 - 25 years.

After denial of his appeal, based in part on counsel's failure to request DNA testing, Innocent Project lawyers filed a release-of-evidence motion which was granted by the court in March 1994. Physical evidence from a vaginal and anal swab and a semen stain on the victim's nightgown was again forwarded to the FSA. The report issued July 6, 1994 found that Piszcek's DNA did not match the tested evidence. Though the prosecutor's office asked a judge to overturn the conviction the next day, it took months for a Cuyahoga County judge to free Piszcek. Upon his release, he had served 4 years in prison. Three months of this sentence was served after his innocence was no longer even in question.

 

  • Near Death Experience 

Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were arrested and jailed for the kidnap, rape and murder of a 10-year old girl in 1994. A DuPage County, IL court jointly tried, convicted and sentenced them to death in 1985.

In 1988, both men made successful post-conviction challenges in the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that they, and a third co-defendant who was not convicted, should have been tried separately when it became clear that the prosecution was going to use their statements against one another. Upon remand however, the circuit court again convicted both men. When their cases were again appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, the Court was deluged by amicus curiae briefs averring that a convicted rapist-murderer had already confessed to the crimes alleged to Hernandez and Cruz. 

Later, in 1995, DNA tests verified that neither Cruz nor Hernandez were the source of the semen found at the crime scene. Further, a sheriff's department lieutenant recanted incriminating testimony he had provided in previous trials. The combination of all these factors resulted in the dismissal of both men's cases and their subsequent release. Both men served 11 years on death row for a crime they had not committed.

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Unlike the emphasis at Cardozo Law School, these newly-formed Innocence Project Centers will not focus solely on DNA evidence, but any credible evidence that may firmly establish actual innocence. According to Barry Scheck, "The potential for these satellite Innocence Centers is infinite because they can focus on less technical, but just as important, exculpatory evidence. Often, what is needed to overturn an unjust conviction is a painstaking review of the existing facts in the case." He pointed to two recent highly-publicized exonerations - those of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez from death row in Illinois - which were not primarily based on DNA testing. 

The Cruz and Hernandez case also illustrates the key role that journalism schools have played in exonerating the innocent. Northwestern Journalism School professor David Protess and his students investigated alongside Northwestern law professor Larry Marshall and his students to effectuate the release of the "Ford Heights Four." Scheck concluded, "We need to mobilize as many law and journalism schools as possible to commit themselves to freeing innocent people who are trapped in the worst nightmare imaginable - being locked up or awaiting execution for no just cause."

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 9,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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