The Regina A. Quick Center theatre was nearly filled on the evening of November 7th for the Open Visions Forum event, entitled “DNA Evidence and The Saving of Human Lives. One of Fairfield University’s Professors of Visual and Performing Arts, Dr. Philip Eliasoph, began and introduced the event. The discussion was delivered by Barry Scheck, a former member of O.J. Simpson’s defense team, who has dedicated himself to the “Innocence Project,” overturning wrongful convictions based upon DNA evidence. Dr. Ellen Umansky, a Professor of Religious Studies and the Carl & Dorothy Bennett Chair in Judaic Studies, also welcomed Mr. Scheck by giving a brief description of his extensive professional background as well as emphasizing the point that we as humans have a responsibility for each other which Mr. Scheck attends to everyday through his work.
Mr. Scheck began the Innocence Project in 1992 at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, along with Peter Neufeld. The pair began working with DNA evidence years before the Innocence Project. The first case they took on was that of a man who was convicted of staging a burglary and murdering his wife because of prosecutorial misconduct. The defense of the case was not allowed to see the full police report which they later discovered held suppressed exculpatory evidence. After many appeals, Mr. Scheck was finally able to run a DNA test on a bloody bandana found a few hundred yards from the scene which resulted in a DNA hit on the offender. Following the hit, Mr. Scheck proposed a motion to recuse the prosecutor, which was denied, but the judge in the case recused himself because of his previous wrong decisions in the case.
The man was released after 25 years in prison. His story was the first example of people who are unjustly convicted, who are given a fighting chance for freedom with the Innocence Project.
Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, the Innocence Project to this day has 278 post-conviction exonerations in 44 different states. The average amount of time served by the wrongly convicted person was 13 years. Out of these 278 people, 17 were on death row and in 123 of the cases, the real perpetrator was identified by the test.
The statistics given by Mr. Scheck about the seven causes of wrongful conviction are:
- In 75% of cases, there is eyewitness misidentification
- In 50% of cases, there is forensic science that is not validated
- In 25% of cases, there are false confessions and admissions
- In 20% of cases, the defendant is inadequately represented
Also included in Scheck’s discussion is the topic of capital punishment. Mr. Scheck explains that the cost of the death penalty is much higher than offering the convicted a life without parole. He gave the example of the state of California where it costs $187 million more to house those on death row, than if they had been placed into a prison. This is partially because of the amount of time the person is housed, an average of 25 years, before they are lethally injected. Many states such as New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois have repealed capital punishment and decided that it would be a better use of their money to spend it on their law enforcement agencies.
The Innocence Project has had a critical impact on the world of DNA exonerations and has saved the lives of all those who have been released after being wrongfully convicted. Mr. Scheck has played a very extensive role in his organization and has brought these issues to the public eye much more than they ever have been. More information can be found online at www.innocenceproject.org as well as in Mr. Scheck’s book which he co-authored with Neufeld and Jim Dwyer entitled Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches from the Wrongfully Convicted.
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