Peter Neufeld Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Passion for Justice: Conversation with Peter Neufeld, Attorney and Director of the Innocence Project; 4/27/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Peter, welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Brooklyn in the shadow of Ebbets Field, never willing to accept that the Dodgers ever left town.

I see.

Mom had to leave in the middle of a game, in fact, and always sort of held that against me.

So you could be born?

So I could be born.

I see, okay.

I lived in Brooklyn for a while and my folks moved out to the suburbs, you know, in the early fifties, like a lot of World War II vets did.

In retrospect, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

They're very special people, both of them, although my father is now deceased. From a very early age, they were very, very inquisitive parents. I was raised in a secular humanist family. My mother was the president of the American Ethical Culture Society nationwide. My father was active in progressive politics from the time of the Spanish Civil War up to other kinds of community efforts on the Lower East Side of New York. They got us involved in the Civil Rights Movement at a very early age. We went down to Freedom Schools and participated in the those kinds of meaningful family experiences.

Right.

If you do that with your parents, it takes on a much greater significance than if you do it alone.

So in a way, the choice before you was how concretely to realize that in a career later.

From a very early age, we always thought about doing public interest work, both my brother and myself. And that never changed. It was just a question of where we would be most effective. I'm no artist. I still paint stick figures, so that wasn't in the offering.

I read somewhere that at one time you thought of going into the movies to write scripts.

I did. I actually used to write a lot of film criticism in high school and college. I loved movies, still love movies, and did write some screenplays. I worked on a feature film called Days of Heaven right out of law school. Worked on another feature film which didn't go very far, called My Little Girl, about a young girl coming of age without sex, without drugs, without rock and roll, and hence, without an audience.

I see.

But I wanted to get involved in trying cases. That was always something that was important to me.

In your youth, any books that you read that stick out, even now, in terms of influencing you later in life?

I can't think of any one book. I know that at a very early age, my folks had me reading. At about ten years old, I was reading Howard Fast novels to get a sense of the politics involved; moving on, then, to Steinbeck and the rich history of American reform and radicalism. But more and more, later on, nonfiction. Reading stories about trials and tribulations -- that was always something that grabbed me.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I was at the University of Wisconsin, primarily; although, I left there twice. Once, I was suspended for participating in a demonstration involving the Black Student Union in 1969. And then I was thrown out in 1971 as a result of anti-war protest.

And in the first incident you were ... Explain what that protest was about.

It was 1968/69 and we had no Black Studies program at the school.

I see.

And they were trying to set that up. We actually shut down the school for a period of time, and there was some resistance. Some people from Young Americans for Freedom were trying to get into a building, and I took it upon myself to become a role model for the other people, who were obstructing entrance to the building. I was suspended for that incident. But it led to the creation of a Black Studies program and the Black Student Center, and some good things came out of it.

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