The Innocence Project Celebrates 25 Years of Exonerations

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Larry Fuller, center, with Innocence Project lawyers Barry Scheck, right, and Vanessa Potkin, after DNA evidence exonerated him.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Innocence Project, the non-profit legal organization that has led the nation in the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted. Among its most notable cases is the Central Park Five, who were convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger through false and coerced confessions. They were exonerated through DNA evidence in 2002.

Since Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the Innocence Project, the organization has spawned an international movement with a network of more than fifty sister organizations in the U.S. and beyond.

Scheck told WNYC's Jami Floyd that, even though the Innocence Project has focused on DNA evidence, its cases have also helped push reforms in the criminal justice system at large.

"The real significance of the innocence movement," Scheck says, "is that we now have to come to terms with the fact that there's far more error in the system than anybody ever believed before we had DNA science."

One example of such reform came last week, when Janet DiFiori, the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, urged judges to issue formal orders to ensure that prosecutors disclose all evidence that could point to the defendant's innocence. This followed the case of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife after the prosecutor in his case withheld exculpatory evidence. Lawyers of The Innocence Project exonerated Morton in 2011, after he had spent nearly 25 years in prison.

Scheck said the criminal justice system can make much better use of the tools science has to offer.

"We're doing a better job at this in the delivery of medical care, and we can do it here in the criminal justice system."