The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization committed to freeing individuals from prison who were wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992. Since then, it has helped to exonerate hundreds of people who were wrongfully convicted. The organization has played a large role in the movement to try to abolish the death penalty, as many of those who have been exonerated were on death row at the time.
DNA Testing Is Essential
The Innocence Project focuses their efforts around using DNA testing to prove the innocence of their clients. While they have staff devoted to other avenues to prove innocence, their primary focus of DNA testing is also their most effective at overturning wrongful convictions.
Various studies have shown that far too many United States prisoners are innocent of their alleged crimes. Obviously, no figure is exact. If exact figures were available, then we would have to hope they were at zero percent. While there is no consensus on an exact number, these studies suggest that no fewer than two percent and as many as five percent of inmates are innocent.
With over two million people incarcerated in the United States, that means that at minimum there are 40,000 people who don’t belong there, and possibly upwards of 100,000. So, while the couple of hundred people freed by the Innocence Project is a great achievement, it is only a drop in the bucket.
Real change needs to happen at a systemic level. One non-profit organization can not do it all on its own. This is especially true when their best weapon of DNA evidence is available in less than 10% of cases.
The Innocence Project gets thousands of applications every year from inmates asking them to take on their case. A wrongful incarceration lawyer or another qualified employee of the organization reviews the applications. Those in which there seems to be a high enough possibility of innocence get taken on by the team.
Promoting the Idea of Change
The work done by the Innocence Project is incredible. Reading the stories of some of the people who were wrongly convicted of crimes and spent years, sometimes decades, in prison before being proven innocent, is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. When you think about how many other people languish away behind bars for a crime they did not commit, it can make you feel gutted.
Beyond the incredible work of helping their clients to get their lives back, there is a broader societal impact that the Innocence Project promotes. These cases aren’t just forcing many states to reexamine the idea of the death penalty. They are also pressuring courts and lawmakers to take a closer look at the whole legal process.
Creating a system that never results in a wrongful conviction may be beyond our abilities. However, creating a system that gets the number of wrongful convictions down from a five or six-digit number certainly seems doable. There are far too many problems that persist in our court system, from jury makeup to inadequate defense. These issues are especially pressing when the defendant is a member of a minority group.
Catching the Real Criminal
A wrongful conviction is not just harmful to the person who is locked up. When a crime is committed, and the wrong person goes to prison, that means that the actual guilty party goes free. Once a conviction has been made, police no longer investigate the crime because they believe it has already been solved.
Families of victims might get a false sense of justice by having someone go to prison for the crime that has been committed. However, that just makes the sense of injustice hit even harder if it turns out that the person who went to prison was innocent the whole time. Then families are left with the knowledge that not only was the person who harmed their loved one get away with it, but they made another victim as well.
In many of the exonerations, the DNA evidence used to prove innocence also leads law enforcement to the actual perpetrator of the crime. Had a more thorough investigation been made from the start, not only would an innocent person stayed out of prison, but a guilty person would have gone in.
It’s also likely that in many cases where the wrong person was sent to prison, had the investigation continued at the time, investigators would have found the guilty culprit. After years of the wrong person being in prison though, when they are finally cleared of charges, there is no trail of evidence left to follow. The world has moved on, and there is nowhere to pick up the investigation.
Hopefully, with time, the Innocence Project will continue to grow and further reveal the cracks in our legal system. Only by examining the flaws in how the system works can we begin to repair it.