September 28, 2000

Innocent After Proven Guilty

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Peter Neufeld, co-founder and director of the Innocence Project at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, addressed a Cornell audience yesterday at Myron Taylor Hall, speaking on “Executing the Innocent: Why So Many Wrongful Convictions?”

Neufeld outlined the mission of his organization, which uses DNA testing developed in the last decade to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted defendants. Such a mission, explained Neufeld, exposes serious deficiencies concerning civil rights, police and prosecuting procedures, and forensic science within the American system.

Throughout Neufeld’s talk, the audience of primarily Cornell Law students heard Neufeld vividly describe the battles he fights daily for innocent people behind bars or even awaiting execution.

Because of the physical nature of the more severe crimes, rape and sexual assault cases have been the bulk of cases in which the Innocence Project has used DNA testing to reveal erroneous convictions.

Neufeld is the co-author of Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongfully Accused, a book that relates the history of the Innocence Project. The book also tells the true stories of several innocent people, many on death row, who were exonerated through the efforts of Neufeld’s organization and DNA testing technology.

Neufeld said that “the real significance . . . is not just the post-conviction DNA exoneration cases, but what they teach us” about our society and our justice system. For one, asserted Neufeld, “we see the frailty of our system” whereby issues like racism and dubious criminal investigative work hide the truth.

In his line of work, Neufeld must counter racial prejudices towards the wrongly convicted defendants. Armed with a barrage of statistics from sources such as the FBI and Department of Justice, Neufeld noted that over the past two decades only 10 percent of reported sexual assault cases involved a perpetrator and a victim of different races. At the same time, however, 55 percent of the sexual assault convictions overturned have included a black man wrongfully accused of assaulting a white woman.

He also said that 82 percent of the cases in which a convicted prisoner was proved innocent by way of DNA testing involved a mistaken eyewitness that contributed to the defendant’s conviction.

“Before this speech, I didn’t realize the extent to which people have been exonerated by DNA evidence,” said Mike Satin ’02 law. “There may be people on Death Row who are actually innocent. For me, this raises doubts about convictions based on faulty eyewitness evidence, especially when they’re cross-racial.”

The achievements of the Innocence Project, made up of Cardozo Law students, said Neufeld, are the “tip of the iceberg.” In roughly 75 percent of the cases his organization accepts, he said, the evidence necessary to perform an investigation has been lost. He said this statistic points to a much larger task to be undertaken.

Presented as a crusade that ignores political party lines, Actual Innocence has helped effect a change in what Neufeld called the “political winds,” specifically with regard to capital punishment.

Neufeld noted that individuals and groups across the political spectrum have been receptive to the book, acknowledging at least the gravity of mistaken convictions if not changing the way they view the morality of the death penalty.

Archived article by Maison Rippeteau