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DNA exoneration starts with Innocence Project gatekeeper

Huy Dao plays a reluctant 'god' to hopeful prisoners

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It was Dao's first visit to a prison. It smelled like school lunch, he remembers, and bulky prisoners in jumpsuits deferred to him as if he were the teacher they feared. In a sterile room, he swabbed the inside of Godschalk's mouth and while he waited for the sample to dry, he listened. Godschalk – alone in the world, chasing exoneration – saw Dao as his ticket to freedom. At their parting, Godschalk sought assurance that the test would come out in his favor. Dao says the moment was an epiphany: It struck him that it wasn't his job to be a God-like judge. The test alone could determine innocence.

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And it did. Godschalk was exonerated in his 15th year of a 10- to 20-year sentence. Released from a Pennsylvania prison on Valentine's Day, 2002, he had virtually nothing and no one, so he came to New York where Dao and Ms. Potkin were. They knew every detail of his case, but now they found themselves worrying: What was his waist size? Was he going to blast his ears out with that new CD player?

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"The first thing I was taught [in evaluating cases] was to err on the side of generosity," explains Dao, adding that he's never worried much about recommending a case in which the client turns out to be guilty – something that does happen. "The part that keeps you up at night is if you don't recommend a case, you're never going to know [if someone is innocent or not]."

Passionately disturbed by what he sees as unfairness in the justice system – such as racism and coerced confessions – Dao is committed to making one thing in these prisoners' lives fair: the evaluation of their applications. He will not let the pressure of thousands of cases push him to be indifferent, nor will he be driven by emotion to dwell on a case that doesn't meet the Innocence Project's narrow mandate.

But people like Marvin Anderson complicate that detachment. Convicted in 1982 at age 18 of raping and sodomizing a young white woman, Mr. Anderson, who is black, was sentenced to 210 years in a Virginia prison. Six years into his sentence, another man confessed to the crime. But because the crime-scene evidence had been destroyed, Anderson's quest to clear his name seemed lost. Through the perseverance of a law student at the Innocence Project, forgotten samples of evidence were found in a lab technician's notebook, and Anderson was exonerated in 2002.

Dao was invited to the ceremony at the Virginia governor's mansion. He'd been wary until then of meeting exonerees – worried that having his heartstrings plucked would cloud his objectivity. In Virginia, that changed. "His family just enveloped us – I think I met 80 people that day who claimed to be his cousin," recalls Dao, who saw Anderson's motorcycle and asked for a ride. And so a bit of burnt rubber heralded Dao's first of numerous friendships with exonerees.

"It's easier to process the objective parts of this work when you're just focusing on whether they meet the criteria or not," he explains. "But that factors into how you treat these people on the phone – just as units."

Dao "has a certain inflexibility in his commitment to making the process fair," admits Potkin and other colleagues who see him as a bulldog who won't back down. "While that sometimes can be frustrating to people ... everyone recognizes what it's about and respects where it's coming from."

But as he's evolved from solo warrior to head honcho in a department of seven, Dao has taken on an almost parental thoughtfulness about his role: "When I first started working here, the main thing that kept me going was anger. But that went away – it has to. This department is tasked with dealing with the humanity of what we do ... but also with getting to as many people as possible. And anger doesn't help you keep that balance."

But the No. 1 thing that keeps his staff plowing through transcripts of heinous crimes and forging through countless judicial roadblocks is the exonerations: bittersweet proof that their work is both imperative and powerful. Using the cases of innocence to "show why these people went to prison in the first place shines light" on the justice system, he says.

Those freed by that light can testify to its effectiveness.