Innocent people are wrongfully convicted in this country, and DNA testing has shown the cases aren't isolated or rare.
While some claim that eventual exoneration proves the system works, what it proves is that justice sometimes requires law students, journalism students, concerned lawyers, organizations and citizens to do what police, prosecutors and the courts failed.
In 1992 attorneys Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld created the Innocence Project in New York City. The Innocence Project handles cases in which post-conviction DNA tests can yield conclusive proof of innocence. Students handle casework supervised by a team of attorneys and staff. As a result of their work, 115 capital convictions have been overturned so far in the United States.
Being good citizens
The Innocence Project has grown to a network of law schools, journalism schools and public defender offices across the country.
The University of Cincinnati's Law School might become the Innocence Project base for Ohio, according to William R. Gallagher, past president of the Greater Cincinnati Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Scheck approached Gallagher at a conference in May and asked him to help him with a pitch to UC.
"Scheck felt that Ohio needed a project because of the multiple exonerations in Ohio," Gallagher says. "The plan is to have it fall under the Urban Justice Institute at UC Law School. The projects nationwide that have succeeded have been institutional in nature."
If the project sets up shop, UC students would handle research and review criminal cases, screening requests for help and tracking down DNA evidence. Attorneys would donate all legal work.
City Councilman John Cranley has led the effort to open an Innocence Project at UC, according to Gallagher.
Brian Susskind, director of UC's Hoxworth Transplant-Immunology Department, recently contacted UC Law School and expressed interest in working with the Innocence Project.
Susskind says his department is developing the ability to do DNA testing, including forensic ID testing. If the load is not too great, the testing could be done pro bono or at a reduced cost.
"They are interested in being good citizens of the university and of the city of Cincinnati," Susskind says.
Deters' red herring
Following the re-imposition of the death penalty in Illinois, 12 people have been executed and 13 have been exonerated. In 2000 Illinois Gov. George Ryan issued an executive order creating the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment. He also imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.
In April 2002 the commission released its conclusions. Some of the factors found to lead to wrongful convictions were mistaken identity, police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, junk science, bad lawyering, using informants and jailhouse snitches and false confessions.
The commission's findings reinforced what Scheck had been saying for years. In February 2000 he, Neufeld and Jim Dwyer published Actual Innocence. The book tells 10 stories of innocent people convicted by sloppy police work, corrupt prosecutors, jailhouse snitches, mistaken eyewitnesses and common flaws in the justice system.
Cranley and his class of 14 law students reviewed 201 Ohio Death Row cases last summer.
"We applied the criteria set up by Illinois Gov. Ryan's commission for applying the death penalty to a particular case," Cranley says. "We asked how many of Ohio's inmates would be on Death Row if these recommendations were applied. We found that the number would be less than half."
Ohio now houses 203 men on Death Row, of whom 45 were convicted in Hamilton County, including 25 during the term of former Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters and current Prosecutor Mike Allen. Critics refer to Hamilton County as "Little Texas" for its record of sending prisoners to Death Row.
The use of "jailhouse snitches" in return for deals or rewards has been the key in sending innocent people to prison, according to the Innocence Project. Deters' staff won 10 convictions in the Lucasville riot trials due to snitch testimony.
Deters, who is now state treasurer, had a reputation for being tough on crime. In April 2000 he gave his opinion of the possibility of wrongful convictions.
"The most recent attack on the death penalty is the claim that an innocent man could possibly be executed," he said. "That would be a legitimate concern if it had any merit. ... The lengthy appellate process virtually insures no innocent person would fall victim to this unlikely fantasy. ... The possibility of executing an innocent man is nothing but a red herring."
Tell that to Anthony Michael Green and Danny Brown. In the time since Deters' statement, both men have been exonerated and freed from Ohio prisons because of the work of the Innocence Project. Altogether, four people have been exonerated and freed from Ohio prisons since 1994:
· Anthony Michael Green of Cleveland was freed after serving 13 years of a 50-year sentence for rape.
· Danny Brown of Toledo was freed last year after serving 19 years for a 1982 murder. The DNA evidence used to free Brown matched an inmate who was incarcerated for committing another murder.
· Walter D. Smith of Columbus, convicted of the sexual assault of three women, was released in 1996 after serving 12 years.
· Brian Piszczek served four years of a 25-year sentence for rape in Cuyahoga County. He was released in 1994.
Twenty-eight states have enacted statutes addressing post-conviction DNA testing. Ohio is not one of them.
Hamilton County prosecutors are repeatedly reprimanded for misconduct: 14 times in death penalty cases since 1988. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer says prosecutors across Ohio have made improper statements in court, but Hamilton County prosecutors have too often stretched or broken the rules.
"How do we stop prosecutors from engaging in conduct that we tell them time and time again is improper?" Moyer says.
During an interview on the TV show Frontline, Scheck was asked what DNA testing and the resulting exonerations show.
"It tells us that our system is generating more mistakes than anybody really wanted to believe," he said. "It is not that surprising. When you have a criminal justice system where most of the people charged are indigent, and the resources that the state gives them to fight their cases are meager, where the public defenders are overburdened, where court-appointed lawyers get $500 for a felony case or a $1,000 for a death penalty case, why is it such a shock that things go wrong? It shouldn't be." ©