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.
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.
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.
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.