The Innocence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating individuals who it claims have been wrongly convicted, through the use of DNA testing and working to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The group cites various studies estimating that in the United States, between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners are innocent. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Scheck and Neufeld gained national attention in the mid-1990s as part of the "Dream Team" of lawyers who formed part of the defense in the O. J. Simpson murder case.
As of November 17, 2019, the Innocence Project has worked on 189 successful DNA-based exonerations.
The Innocence Project was established in the wake of a study by the United States Department of Justice and United States Senate, in conjunction with the Jewish Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which claimed that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70% of wrongful convictions. The original Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Scheck and Neufeld as part of the Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City. It became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization on January 28, 2003, but it maintains institutional connections with Cardozo. As of September 5, 2018, the executive director of the Innocence Project is Madeline deLone.
The Innocence Project has become widespread as countries are using scientific data to overturn wrongful convictions and in turn freeing those wrongly convicted. One such example exists in the Republic of Ireland where in 2009 a project was set up at Griffith College Dublin.
The Innocence Project focuses on cases in which DNA evidence is available to be tested or retested. DNA testing is possible in 5–10% of criminal cases. Other members of the Innocence Network also help to exonerate those in whose cases DNA testing is not possible.
In addition to working on behalf of those who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes throughout the United States, those working for the Innocence Project perform research and advocacy related to the causes of wrongful convictions.
Some of the Innocence Project's successes have resulted in releasing people from death row. The successes of the project have fueled American opposition to the death penalty and have likely been a factor in the decision by some American states to institute moratoria on criminal executions.
In District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009), US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that post-conviction challenge "poses questions to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality better left to elected officials than federal judges." In the opinion, another justice wrote that forensic science has "serious deficiencies". Roberts also said that post-conviction DNA testing risks "unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice." Law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote: "It might lead to a reasonably accurate one."
As of November 2019, 367 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 21 of whom had been sentenced to death. Almost all (99%) of the wrongful convictions were males, with minority groups constituting approximately 70% (61% African American and 8% Latino). The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,579 convicted defendants who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence from January 1, 1989, through April 12, 2015. According to a study published in 2014, more than 4% of persons overall sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 are probably innocent. The following are examples of notable exonerations:
The Innocence Project originated in New York City but accepts cases from any part of the United States. The majority of clients helped are of low socio-economic status and have used all possible legal options for justice. Many clients hope that DNA evidence will prove their innocence, as the emergence of DNA testing allows those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes to challenge their cases. The Innocence Project also works with the local, state and federal levels of law enforcement, legislators, and other programs to prevent further wrongful convictions.
About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases.
All potential clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not they are likely to be innocent. If they pass the process, the Innocence Project takes up their case. In almost half of the cases that the Innocence Project takes on, the clients' guilt is reconfirmed by DNA testing. Of all the cases taken on by the Innocence Project, about 43% of clients were proven innocent, 42% were confirmed guilty, and evidence was inconclusive and not probative in 15% of cases. In about 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement officials identified the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that led to an exoneration.
The Innocence Project, as of June 2018, receives 55% of its funding from individual contributions, 16% from foundations, 16% from events, 8% from investments, and the remainder from corporations, Yeshiva University, and other sources.
The Innocence Project is a founder of the Innocence Network, an organization of law and journalism schools, and public defense offices that collaborate to help convicted felons prove their innocence. 46 American states along with several other countries are a part of the network. In 2010, 29 people were exonerated worldwide from the work of the members of this organization.
The Innocence Network brings together a growing number of innocence organizations from across the United States, as well as including members from other English-speaking common law countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
In South Africa, the Wits Justice Project investigates South African incarcerations. In partnership with the Wits Law Clinic, the Julia Mashele Trust, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the US Innocence Project, and the Justice Project investigate individual cases of prisoners wrongly convicted or awaiting trial.
There are many reasons why wrongful convictions occur. The most common reason is false eyewitness identification, which played a role in more than 75% of wrongful convictions overturned by the Innocence Project. Often assumed to be incontrovertible, a growing body of evidence suggests that eyewitness identifications are unreliable. Another cause for misidentification is when a "show-up" procedure occurs. This is when a suspect is shown at the scene of a crime in a poorly lit lot or in a police car. Someone might also misidentify when they learn more about the suspect; it may cause them to change their description.
Unreliable or improper forensic science played a role in some 50% of Innocence Project cases. Scientific techniques such as bite-mark comparison, once widely used, are now known to be subjective. Many forensic science techniques also lack uniform scientific standards.
In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent people were coerced into making false confessions. Many of these false confessors went on to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit (usually to avoid a harsher sentence or even the death penalty).