The number of “innocence projects” has mushroomed to 35 nationally, nearly half formed in the last four years, reports the National Law Journal. The expansion has steadily altered criminal procedures in dozens of states. Since the 1998 formation of the first Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, the projects have played a key role in exonerating 151 prisoners through DNA testing, passing post-conviction DNA statutes in more than a dozen states, implementing videotaped interrogations by more than 200 police departments; and reforming eyewitness identification procedures in two dozen cities.
In many innocence programs, law students do most of the investigating, while volunteer lawyers in the private sector litigate the cases for free. Innocence programs are funded primarily through private donations. The Ohio Innocence Project last month received a $1 million grant from some local philanthropists. Many prosecutors applaud defense lawyers for taking the lead on an issue that, they say, really should be championed by the prosecutorial side. A recent national conference on eyewitness identification procedures attracted defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police officials from all over the country, including Hennepin County, Minn., prosecutor Amy Klobuchar. She has helped launch pilot programs in four cities, including Minneapolis, that are designed to change the way police conduct lineups and eyewitness identifications.