When DNA releases the innocent from behind bars

Barry Scheck is not the first person to go to law school inspired by a television show. But he is one of few whose legal careers bear any resemblance to the fantasy.

Motivated by the 1960s courtroom drama, "The Defenders," Mr. Scheck, best known for defending O.J. Simpson, has transformed the minutiae of forensic science into a dynamic vocation.

Despite the lawyerly pin-striped suit, Scheck says he is drawn to the dramatic. He's working with his legal partner, Peter Neufeld, on a new book a riveting yet disturbing tragedy.

"Actual Innocence" (Doubleday), written with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Dwyer, unfolds the true stories of 12 men convicted of brutal crimes they did not commit. In each case, DNA evidence, in the hands of the Innocence Project - the law clinic Scheck and Neufeld run at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York - proves their innocence.

The ability to test DNA has come to be considered manna from heaven for the innocent prisoner. "It's the single greatest investigative tool since the discovery of fingerprints," Scheck says. In the late '80s, forensic scientists discovered deoxyribonucleic acid could be extracted from cells and compared to that found at a crime scene. If the DNA "matches," it is overwhelming evidence of guilt. Scheck and Neufeld realized early on that it is also powerful proof of innocence. DNA has helped them exonerate 37 clients since they began the project in 1992.

Since the advent of DNA testing, 64 convicted prisoners have been exonerated in the United States alone. Of the 62 analyzed for "Actual Innocence," eight were on death row.

The Innocence Project only takes cases where DNA evidence exists, and identification of the perpetrator is the key issue. But the authors aim to demonstrate more than the miracles of DNA. "The message of our book isn't that DNA can prove people innocent," Scheck says. "The book asks, Why did all these people get convicted in the first place?"

Each chapter reveals how an unscrupulous prosecutor or police officer, unreliable eyewitness, incompetent defense lawyer, coerced confession, faulty forensic science, or some other justice-system foible led to the loss of years of an innocent man's freedom. Each chapter closes with a list of reforms that could prevent further false convictions.

In most cases, however, there is no DNA evidence, or the physical remains have been destroyed. And in many states, courts won't even consider new evidence more than six months after conviction. Only New York and Illinois allow inmates to have their DNA tested any time after conviction, without cost.

Scheck and Neufeld may seem an unlikely pair to be plying the cause for DNA testing, given that their attack on such evidence nearly six years ago was what helped free O.J. Simpson. But Scheck insists there is no contradiction. "There's a right way to do things and a wrong way."

In the Simpson case, he and Neufeld maintained that the police had done pretty much everything the "wrong way," contaminating the evidence in the process. Nationally recognized as DNA experts since then, Scheck and Neufeld have been on a crusade to regulate crime labs and train police officers to properly handle biological evidence.

With "Actual Innocence," they are also striving for a host of other criminal justice reforms, from increased funding for criminal defense lawyers to establishing a national blue-ribbon commission to determine what went wrong every time a convicted person is proven innocent.

"If an airplane falls from the sky, or a car blows up, or a patient dies and it can't be explained, there's a big postmortem," Scheck says. "The only system that doesn't do that is the criminal justice system."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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