The Innocence Project is a legal foundation that has freed 254 men and women through DNA evidence since 1992. Founded by Barry Scheck and fellow defense lawyer Peter Neufeld, it started as a clinical course at New York City’s Cardozo School of Law and is now the centerpiece of the national Innocence Movement: 59 loosely affiliated law schools, journalism programs and nonprofit organizations aiming to prove the fallibility of outmoded evidence practices and, more broadly, of the entire legal system, reports Time magazine.
They have successfully lobbied for changing postconviction DNA statutes and for having stricter crime-lab oversight. Because of their work, the possibility that an unacceptably high percentage of U.S. prisoners did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted has redefined the way prosecutors, defenders, and jurors approach their roles. “There are way fewer death cases in the last five years [in Texas]. Prosecutors ask for it less, and they get it less,” says David Dow, a University of Houston Law Center professor who founded the Texas Innocence Network. “I think it’s because the juries started to know about exoneration.” Scheck has never landed what would be the holy grail of innocence in the U.S.: DNA proof that a prisoner was executed in the modern era for a crime he didn’t commit. His team came close recently after investigations, first by the Chicago Tribune and then by the New Yorker, showed that a Texan named Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for a deadly fire that he probably didn’t start.