The Innocence Project involves lawyers, law students, and law schools in assisting prisoners who challenge their convictions based on DNA testing of evidence.
Since the advent of forensic DNA testing in the 1980s it has become possible to draw up a genetic profile of a suspect and, in turn, exonerate wrongly convicted defendants. More than fifty people in the United States have so far been cleared through DNA analysis of their evidence and released. To aid prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions through use of such testing, members of the legal profession founded The Innocence Project, which offers legal aid to those convicted in cases where DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence
Begun in 1992 at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, The Innocence Project has now been established in clinics and law schools throughout the United States, and there are two Projects in Australia as well. The programs offer free legal assistance to inmates who challenge their convictions based on DNA testing of evidence. Cases are handled primarily by law students, supervised by law school faculty, other attorneys, and clinic staff. Projects are also active in national efforts to pass new laws, implement new policies, and gather research in order to reverse and prevent wrongful convictions.
Individual Projects address other issues as well. The Cardozo program, for instance, is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, developing legislation that would provide statutes in every state allowing for easier access to post-conviction DNA testing of evidence when it might provide conclusive proof of innocence. The Innocence Program Northwest, a nonprofit alliance of attorneys, law school faculty, and law students at the University of Washington School of law, provides free representation to inmates who are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, no longer have a right to counsel, and have a recognizable claim of actual innocence. Activities in the project involved reading inmate letters and questionnaires to select cases for further investigation.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project, at the University of Wisconsin, offers an academic course that explores the procedures and barriers to investigating and litigating post-conviction claims of innocence. It includes classroom sessions and representation of prisoners who have viable claims of innocence. Students examine the common errors or problems that produce wrongful convictions, the process for investigating a claim of innocence, post-conviction discovery rules, the competing interests of finality accuracy in criminal litigation, state and federal post-conviction procedures, the nature and uses of DNA and other scientific evidence, and the rules governing admissibility of such evidence.
Despite the growth of the Project in institutions throughout the country, there are often not enough resources to provide assistance to all who request it. In addition, since clients must usually pay for the DNA testing themselves, those lacking the financial resources often cannot be accepted as clients. And since the Project can at this point only aid in cases where DNA testing is relevant, many inmates are turned away even when their claims of innocence may be valid. The Project has also faced difficulties at a state and national level, encountering a reluctance to embrace DNA testing as a crucial resource in retrying cases, particularly of prisoners on death row.
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