continued Advances in technology for DNA testing have made all the difference in reversing convictions at Cardozo. "That has been the key reason for Neufeld's and Scheck's success. They only take DNA cases...where DNA can positively demonstrate innocence. The majority of these are rape cases. Our project, on the other hand -- what we are going to attempt to do with this project -- is to broaden our approach and look at other kinds of cases, though they're much, much harder to work up and hope to have success at, because we don't have the concrete, scientific proof that the person in jail could not have committed the crime."
A social conscience drives Stiglitz's preoccupation with innocent convicts. In the early '80s he was appointed by the court to represent indigent clients, appealing their convictions. "When I was doing appeals, I realized that, in fact, there were some people who were in jail who were probably innocent, and I knew from the work that I did that, after a trial was over and done, it was very rare that a professional was available to assist these people in trying to demonstrate their innocence and get their convictions overturned."
Sometimes, the biggest obstacle for reversing a conviction is as simple as finding the proof. "We have a case where we really believe the guy is innocent, but the only way we're going to be able to prove it is to literally track down the person we believe is guilty and get that person's DNA tested. We've had a horrible time tracking this person down. Every time we have a lead, it just doesn't pan out. So we have a client we think we can get out of jail once we've actually found the person we're looking for, but finding that person is extremely difficult.
"In other cases, you are dealing with procedural hurdles built in to the system that make it very, very difficult to get a conviction reversed. The law believes in finality. The law is set up with a number of safeguards along the way so that once the conviction is confirmed on appeal, the courts don't want to look at it again. We've got procedural hurdles as well as proof problems that we're going to have to deal with in order to be successful."
So is the accused still innocent until proven guilty in America? "That certainly reflects our legal system in theory. In some of the procedural mechanisms the prosecution, literally, has the burden of proof. The jury is told that the person cannot be convicted unless they can see guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So there are lots of built-in procedural safeguards to insure -- attempt to insure -- that presumption of innocence is a reality. However, many people walk into the courtroom: Judges, jurors, with the assumption that if the defendant hadn't done something wrong, why were they arrested? Why would the prosecution have gotten this far if they didn't do something? So, as a practical matter, I'm not sure there is always the presumption of innocence in the courtroom.
"I believe that most jurors are conscientious and try to do what they are supposed to do, but I think many come in with the attitude, 'They must have done something. They just don't get ripped off the streets and investigated and prosecuted for nothing.' "
Stiglitz likes to quote Peter Neufeld's adage about what's wrong with the criminal justice system. " 'The people that are running the criminal justice system are the same people who are running the post office!' Y'know, we're talking about bureaucrats. We're talking about people off the street who act as jurors. As in any human endeavor, there are going to be flaws. As a result, there are people in jail who have no business being in jail. We just hope that the public recognizes that what we are doing is legitimate and important."