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DNA exoneration starts with Innocence Project gatekeeper

Huy Dao plays a reluctant 'god' to hopeful prisoners

By Christa CaseStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2007

New York

The prisoner's name is one that Huy Dao has never forgotten. For years, it would resurface amid the thousands of requests for free legal aid that flood his office – an annual, meticulously typewritten plea for help, a last-ditch effort from a man convicted of rape but convinced of his innocence.

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Mr. Dao turned that case down in 1997, but he still can't put it out of his mind. Maybe it was the fact that the man was from Philadelphia, where Dao grew up as the son of Vietnamese refugees, knowing what it's like to have cops look at you askance because of your skin color. Or that it smelled like a faulty conviction, but the evidence that could have provided an indisputable forensic verdict had been destroyed.

"There was something from the letters that he wrote back to me, screaming, basically, 'I have to be innocent, this can't be the end,' " recalls Dao, whose organization uses post-conviction DNA testing to help wrongfully convicted prisoners gain freedom. "It's not fair. But it's my job to evaluate whether DNA can prove innocence, and the answer [in this case] is no."

Such are the difficult decisions that echo in the conscience of the case director of New York's Innocence Project, a 15-year-old nonprofit that recently won its 205th exoneration of an innocent prisoner.

"Many clients write to us as a last resort. If we say no to their cases, they may very well die in prison," says staff attorney Vanessa Potkin, a colleague of Dao's. "Huy has had to live with that burden for so many years. Sometimes they say doctors play God – well, Huy does. You really do have someone's life in your hands."

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Politicized, angered by societal injustice, and fresh out of Cornell University in 1997, Dao figured that if he was going to work for peanuts, he didn't want to be getting someone's coffee. So he took a job delivering freedom.

It didn't start so gloriously. When he arrived, he was the second rung on a two-rung ladder. The Innocence Project was in its infancy – an outgrowth of a criminal-law clinic started by two professors at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law – and he was relegated to such tasks as helping clients' mothers pay for postage so that their cases could be evaluated.

But mainly, he read mail. Serious mail: thousands of heart-wrenching stories from convicted criminals serving long, or life, sentences – or even sitting on death row. Penned in quasi-calligraphy or pecked out on old typewriters, sent on everything from personal letterhead to toilet paper, pleas can be as simple as, "Help me, I'm innocent," or as complex as a 35-page handwritten life story. Sometimes they're accompanied by biological samples or gifts as strange as a mail-order bride catalog with a Japanese DNA biologist circled.

Dao's job: Weigh stories of wrongful conviction of heinous crimes – "a full range of horrors" including sexual assaults and murders – and winnow out those with a claim of innocence that could be proven by DNA testing. Those selected become clients of the project, which hunts down crime-scene evidence, pushes for DNA testing, and helps exonerate those proved innocent.

An English major with no legal training, Dao relies on – of all things – his appreciation of poetry to bring to light new aspects of a case that a police officer or jury may have overlooked. It's a poetic license of sorts that takes him beyond literal, legalistic meanings.

For Bruce Godschalk, Dao's knack for new meaning meant hope. Mr. Godschalk's case didn't look promising: A relative had identified him as the man in a composite sketch drawn by one of two rape victims; Godschalk had even confessed to both rapes. But Dao knew DNA would prove whether he was innocent. It took years to win the right to DNA testing; when they did, Dao was the only one available to go take Godschalk's DNA sample.