How the Innocence Project Uses DNA-based Evidence

By Katya Tolunsky and Kaia Fisher

New York City, New York

DNA testing can make a crucial difference in the criminal justice system (Photo Credit: Innocence Project)

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted and reforming the criminal justice system through the use of DNA-based evidence. Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the nationwide legal network has helped to change the justice system for the better, both by freeing the innocent and by encouraging scrutiny of all types of evidence presented in the courtroom. As said on their website, “The Innocence Project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”


The Innocence Project has proven that DNA testing can make a crucial difference in the criminal justice system. Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and convicted—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly convicted. An Innocence Project review of closed cases from 2004 to June 2015 has revealed that 29% of cases were closed entirely because of lost or destroyed evidence. A National Institute of Justice study has further revealed that in more than 25% of cases, suspects were exonerated once DNA testing was conducted during the criminal investigation. 375 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who served time on death row. 44 of these 375 people pled guilty to crimes they did not commit, serving a staggering average of 14 years in prison before exoneration and release. With the first DNA evidence–based exoneration taking place in 1989, to date, 71% percent of the 375 people exonerated were people of color. The average age at the time of wrongful conviction is 26.6, and the average age at exoneration is 43.


The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA-based evidence to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects and are common in the criminal justice system.


The Innocence Project also has a Strategic Litigation department that works through the courts and the legal system to address the leading causes of wrongful convictions and to prevent future injustices. Established in 2012, the department’s three full-time staff attorneys use multiple strategies to make judges, attorneys, and policymakers aware of the inaccuracy of invalidated forensic science disciplines and the potentially unreliable nature of eyewitness identification evidence and to establish legal precedent in these areas. The department’s attorneys accomplish this through the filing of amicus briefs, consulting with and supporting defense attorneys across the country, representing individual clients, training attorneys and judges and collaborating with the Innocence Project’s Policy Department to pass legislation while collaborating with the Science and Research Department to promote the use of reliable and valid forensic methods.


Along with the Innocence Project’s array of work with DNA testing, its policy department works with Congress, State Legislators, and local leaders to improve a failed system by creating laws and policies that prevent wrongful convictions and unjustified arrests. The Innocence Project has advertised its reform work as creating a system that benefits everyone, not just those that have been wrongfully convicted. For example, its policy work has helped to provide police and prosecutors with the right tools to catch the actual assailant. The organization’s policy work and reform goals are similar and reflect its work with DNA evidence–based exonerations. This is seen through identifying the contributors of a wrongful conviction and ways to fix and eliminate that specific contributor. For example, eyewitness misidentification, misapplication of forensic science, false confessions, and more are all contributors to unwarranted arrests and convictions. Through this reform, the work of the Innocence Project grants the public greater trust and confidence in a system that has proven to fail before.


The ethos of the organization itself is working to reform and change all aspects of our criminal justice system. The Innocence Project’s efforts to free and exonerate the wrongfully convicted consist of a robust analysis of information to identify where the wrongful conviction occurred. Through these efforts, the organization is reforming and changing the entire way we approach criminal justice and legal cases. Its efforts have provided resources to assist research and lawyers interested in understanding unjust arrest and conviction, and the organization allows these professionals to have access to data sources and other key works that help to explain the deficiencies in our criminal justice department.


A key issue that the Innocence Project works to address is helping exonerees adjust to their lives outside of prison and helping exonerees rebuild their identities. Many of these exonerees have been in prison for decades, living in extremely harsh conditions, so navigating and reentering the “outside world” is usually a hard and sometimes distressing experience. Not only does the organization help its clients get out of the prison system, but it also aims to meet clients’ individual needs after being released. The Innocence Project does this through a variety of efforts, such as locating birth certificates, social security members and locating a family member.


An example of one of the Innocence Project’s cases through pre and post-conviction is Kenneth Adams. In 1978, Adams, along with three other men who are collectively known as the “Ford Heights Four,” was wrongfully convicted of rape and double homicide. Adams was sentenced to 75 years in prison; it took 18 years for DNA testing to exonerate him. In May 1978, a recently engaged couple was abducted from a filling station close to where the man worked. The bodies of the couple were found the next day in an abandoned townhouse in East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heights). Both victims had been shot, and the female victim had been gang-raped. A false tip from a man who lived near the crime scene led to the arrest of four men––Verneal Jimmerson, Dennis Williams, Adams, and Willie Rainge. In addition, Paula Gray, Adams’ girlfriend who could neither read nor write, was brought into the police station for questioning. After being held without legal counsel for several days, Gray confessed to a grand jury that she had been present while the four men had raped the female victim. She also said that she saw Williams shoot both victims. A month later, Gray recanted her story at a preliminary hearing, saying that she had been drugged, and police had told her what to say. The charges against Jimerson were dropped, but Gray was then charged with murder and perjury.


After his conviction investigation, in 1994, the jailhouse informant recanted his testimony, saying that he had lied about overhearing Williams and Rainge discussing how they committed the murder because prosecutors offered him a deal on the charges he was facing at the time. With the help of David Protess, Rob Warden, and a team of journalism students from Northwestern University, the four men gained access to evidence for DNA testing. In 1996, DNA testing exonerated all four men and implicated three other men, two of whom confessed and pleaded guilty to the crimes in 1997. They also discovered that the police had been tipped to the identity of the actual perpetrators early on in the investigation but did not pursue the lead. In 1999, the Ford Heights Four settled civil claims for $36 million against the police officers involved in the original investigation. It was the largest civil rights settlement in United States history. Adams’ share of the settlement was $8 million. Adams now lives with his wife in a south suburban Chicago area.

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