Before It Was Popular, Philly Lawyer Crusaded for Convicts

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The New York Daily News looks back at the life of Herbert Maris, a Philadelphia corporate attorney who was a pioneer of prisoner innocence advocacy from the 1920s to the 1950s. Maris paid regular visits to Philly’s grim Eastern State Penitentiary, where a queue of convicts waited to tell variations of the same story: I didn’t do it. Today, hundreds of attorneys form a national web of legal advocacy for convicted offenders who claim innocence. But 50 years before the Innocence Project was founded, in an era when claims of wrongful conviction were met with snickering skepticism, Herb Maris stood nearly alone.

He estimated that he helped free about 300 convicts. His corporate work was lucrative but uninspiring to a white-shoe lawyer with a public defender’s crusading soul. He was prompted to take up prisoner advocacy amid an emerging legal debate about the extent of the justice system’s fallibility. Over many years, he uncovered archetypal examples of the same issues that still induce wrongful convictions today: bad witnesses, false confessions, flawed evidence, dishonest prosecutors, poor defense attorneys and a reliance on shady snitches. Late in life, Maris won national notice when Ziv Television used the attorney’s work to create “Lock Up,” a syndicated melodrama whose 78 episodes aired from 1959 to 1961. He died halfway through the run, at age 80.

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