So You Want to Start an Innocence Project

Sheila Martin Berry

 In recent years numerous wrongly convicted individuals have been released from prison after new evidence, often in the form of scientific evidence such as DNA, has established that they were actually innocent.  Many of these wrongly convicted individuals were released through the efforts of non-profit innocence projects organized for the purpose of investigating and litigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence.  These successes have stirred a rising interest in forming more innocence projects to address the staggering backlog of applications for assistance.

 Innocence projects can be organized as non-profit corporations dependent upon tax deductible donations or as programs within larger, sponsoring organizations.  Centurion Ministries, founded in Princeton, New Jersey in 1983 by Rev.  Jim McCloskey, is an example of a non-profit corporation funded by donations.  The Cardozo Innocence Project at Yeshiva University in New York City, the Remington Center Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Northwestern Innocence Project at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington are examples of programs within law schools that are sponsoring organizations.  In practical terms, innocence programs sponsored by law schools are more likely to be successful because a wider range of appropriate resources is available.  For that reason, our focus here will be on establishing an innocence project sponsored by an accredited law school.

Start at the Beginning

 Before you can successfully pitch your project to the administration, you will need the commitment of at least one—and preferably two or more—criminal law professors.  And in most instances, before you can gain the faculty commitments you need, you will have to prove to those professors that you have a viable plan of operation.  Use this checklist to get started.

Basic Needs

Is there office/work space available for the project?

What equipment will be needed (phones, pens, paper, computers, printers, copiers, toner, binders, etc.)?

What will this cost the law school in terms of hard dollars (additional expenditures)?

What will this cost the law school in terms of soft dollars (money that would have to be spent anyway, for example, for heating and electricity)?

What impact will the project have on the workload of administrative staff?

Law Student Participation

How will law students be familiarized with investigating claims of innocence, post-conviction discovery, state and federal post-conviction procedures, collateral attack, new evidence, habeas and clemency?

Will there be a classroom component?  Will it be a prerequisite to case assignment?

How many credits will be earned per semester?

What is the maximum number of students per semester assigned to cases?

Case Criteria

 Although the instructor-supervisors will have the greatest input with respect to the criteria for cases accepted by the project, this is another aspect that should be thought out in advance.  Reviewing the criteria of other innocence projects can be helpful in formulating the criteria for new programs.

 Cardozo Innocence Project accepts only cases wherein innocence can be proven through DNA testing.  Death penalty cases receive priority.  Remington Center Innocence Project is interested in cases in which some type of new evidence can be found to prove innocence.  "New" means evidence that was not presented at trial because it did not exist, was inadvertently overlooked by the defense or withheld by the prosecution.  The Remington Center IP does not       take cases in which a person is only claiming that his or her rights were violated.  There must be a possibility of developing evidence of factual innocence.

 Centurion Ministries, which is a last resort for cases that would otherwise not be heard, has the most stringent criteria.

 • Individual must have been sentenced to death or a life sentence with little chance of parole for at least 15 years; 

 • Individual must be 100% innocent of the conviction and have had absolutely no involvement whatsoever with the crime. This eliminates self-defense or accidental death cases; 

 • CM does not take child sexual abuse cases because they require a special expertise that CM does not possess;

 • CM only takes rape cases with DNA evidence, or as part of a murder case; and 

 • Individual must be indigent and have pretty much exhausted their appeals.

 Be clear about the types of cases your project can accept, the expertise required and the amount of time—in years—that can be afforded to these cases. 

Internal Organization

 Once you decide what types of cases your project will accept, you must develop procedures to select and assign cases.  The following are essential considerations.

 • How many cases can your project adequately handle at one time?

 • How will new case applications be solicited, received and reviewed?  

 • Who will conduct these reviews, and who will make the decision to accept or reject a case?

 • How often will new cases be accepted and assigned?  Per semester?  Annually?

 • Will project alumni be able to continue working on cases that continue beyond their graduation?

Other Considerations

 Your project will need to use forms—application forms, case assessment forms, and form letters.  Develop useable models early, because once you throw open the doors, you can expect to be stampeded with requests for help.  

 Develop and maintain a bank of motions, supporting memoranda and briefs, starting with the most common issues in innocence cases.  (Hint: Research cases that resulted in reverse and remand and successful habeas petitions, then contact counsel directly for copies.)

In Summary

 Recently retired Florida Supreme  Court Judge Gerald Kogan, now president of the Miami Alliance for Ethical Government, said “[W]e have innocent people on Death Row.  I don't know how many but anybody who understands the justice system knows innocent people are convicted every day."  The rising awareness of the commonality of wrongful conviction is fueling the formation of innocence projects, which have a great deal in common with crime victim assistance programs.   Both serve groups who have been overlooked, denied, neglected and sometimes deliberately abused by the justice system.  Crime victims are potential allies—they are doubly wronged when an innocent person is convicted of a crime he did not commit—and the success of the crime victim rights movement offers organizational and inspirational models.

Innocence Projects
Truth in Justice