San Diego While "innocent until proven guilty" may be the basis of criminal law in America, convicted felons find that it works in reverse when appealing their cases. Appealing a conviction is a long, arduous process, and the odds against success are daunting. That's where the California Innocence Project comes in.
Conceived in 1992 by criminal defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project began at the Cardozo Law School in New York, using law students to help appeal convictions. Inspired by Scheck's and Neufeld's idea, the Innocence Project was brought to California Western School of Law in 1998 by faculty members Justin Brooks and Jan Stiglitz. Using student assistance, the project examines cases where there is strong evidence of innocence and uses all legal means to win release for the convicted.
A teacher at California Western since 1980, Stiglitz is described by one of his students as "a cross between Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase and Alan Dershowitz." Soft-spoken and unassuming, Stiglitz admits he is tough on his first-year students, but it's not malicious. "I like teaching first-year law students. They have a lot of enthusiasm."
Stiglitz sees the project's mission as a basic call for justice. "The Innocence Project was really the brainchild of Justin Brooks. It was an idea that interested me, and I wanted to work on it. The main objective is to do whatever we can to identify and free innocent people who are convicted of crimes and in jail. We just got underway in summer of 2000, and we've identified a number of cases where we think there's actual innocence, and we're working on them now. But none of them has progressed to the point where we've been able to get anybody out. We've got a few that are in court now and a few more that are waiting to be filed."
Prisoners seeking help from the Innocence Project begin by answering a 14-page application. "We have two questions we ask ourselves before deciding to seriously pursue a case: First, do we really believe that the person is innocent? And second, can we demonstrate that in a way and with some vehicle that will actually allow us to do something to get the conviction reversed?"
The role of students is critical in keeping the cost of appeal as low as possible while offering valuable criminal law experience. "The students' primary responsibility is initially gathering information about the case -- finding out what has happened procedurally to the point in time where we are; ascertaining what their claim of innocence is, if there is a question of innocence; looking for evidence that might help us demonstrate innocence... Then, once they have worked up the case, they'll meet with us and we'll discuss what we can do at that point. Can we pursue it -- yes or no? Or is there more information that we need before we decide whether to pursue it, and what steps need to be taken? We want to give our students the lead role in the investigation, and if it comes to the point where research is necessary or documents have to be drafted, we want to give them the lead role in initial research and preparation of any paperwork.
"Unfortunately, we have limited resources, and we have received about a thousand inquiries, most from prisoners in California. We've had a few inquiries from outside the United States, but we are focusing our efforts on California only; specifically, Southern California." Services to selected prisoners are usually free, but there are exceptions. "From time to time we've come across situations where the only possibility of demonstrating innocence may be to hire an expert. One particular case, where we had serious concerns about whether the person actually was innocent, we told the person, 'We're not going to spend 10 to 20 thousand dollars to get the expert to investigate this particular issue. We will not move forward unless you come up with the money.' In fact, that's how the Innocence Project at Cardozo works. They don't have resources to pay for the DNA testing, so it's up to the inmate or the relative to come up with the money. Fortunately, in California, there's a recently enacted statute that provides for free testing in cases where DNA may be able to demonstrate innocence.
"When the legislature passed a bill that mandated DNA testing in appropriate cases, the attorney general's office was very much concerned that they were going to be burdened with representing the other side in these cases, and they went to the legislature and said, 'We need hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund our expenses for doing this work.' So the Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project went to the legislature and said, 'Wait a second. If they're going to be spending a lot of time, we're going to be spending a lot of time as well. If you're going to fund the prosecution's side, you should fund the defense's side as well.' The bill is going to provide equal funding for either side in the form of grants to represent people who are seeking to have their convictions overturned and found innocent."
Stiglitz believes that nearly one percent of all prisoners are innocent. "I give that as a ballpark figure. That's completely innocent of the crime, as opposed to overconvicted [convicted unjustly of a greater crime than the actual crime they were guilty of]. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if you look at the number of people who are in jail and the amounts of time that people are doing in jail, we're talking about lives that are being wasted for no reason."
Stiglitz hopes that the success of the Cardozo Innocence Project can be duplicated at Cal Western. "Neufeld and Scheck, who run the project at Cardozo, published a book, Actual Innocence, where they identified somewhere over 60 cases where people have been freed from jail. So their project alone is responsible for 60 lives."