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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Being a Lawyer

Talking now about popular culture for a moment, did you watch Perry Mason as a young person?

Actually, we didn't watch any television.

I see. That's probably a good thing.

In our household, very, very little of it. I never got involved in the law from the traditional perspective of wanting to be a courtroom lawyer. That was not that interesting. But it was, rather, seeing the law as a vehicle for social change. I'm not the kind of person who can sit in a library and write briefs for month after month. I'm a person who is, I guess, better on my feet trying to solve problems in a more immediate sense. And so I more likely gravitated toward the courtroom for that reason.

Was it an easy decision to become a lawyer?

God, it was an easy decision to become a lawyer! No. I wanted to be a filmmaker for a while.

Right. That's right.

Actually, my first job out of law school was in film, not in law. I still haven't given it up completely. I think there's a time in my life where, maybe, I'll go out and maybe make a film. Because what still intrigues me so much about movie-making is how you can grab a huge audience and have an impact on their opinion so quickly and, perhaps, so permanently. To be able to do that on a regular basis is very, very exciting. We try and do that in the law, but it's much more difficult.

So in a way, the law and the movies both have the potential for being part of the educational process, by which people are elevated to a higher level of consciousness about social justice?

Right. Not to mention the fact that in both situations, you can be a director, a writer, a producer, and an actor.

I see. In the law too?

Well, when you're in court.

I see.


Well, that's interesting.

You know, you get to do all those things as well. You're writing arguments. You're directing the courtroom; you're producing, in terms of the displaying of exhibits and witnesses.


So all of that's there. And the good news is that the twelve people sitting there can't walk out. You have a captive audience.

Just to carry your metaphor further, both are mirrors to the society and they offer the potential to say, "This is what we are like. Do we really want to be that way? Do we want to change?"

Yes, but what we try and do now is we only select those cases where there are significant issues beyond the narrow parameters of the client's case, whether we're involved in innocence cases or other civil rights cases now. We're looking for those instances where we can use it to educate, to engage in legal reform, social reform, new legislation. And that's what we really rely on, before we take any new matter.

That's interesting. Let's talk a minute about what it takes to be a criminal lawyer/civil rights lawyer. What is the hardest thing about doing this kind of work? And what are the personal prerequisites for carrying forward and doing it?

The most extraordinary thing [I noticed] when I was doing primarily criminal defense work ... I'm doing less criminal defense work now, more sort of systemic work, more civil rights litigation. I think of our innocence cases as civil rights cases, as much as they are criminal defense cases. But in criminal defense work, it's the total absorption by the case. When I'm working, when I'm on trial, my family would suffer. The rest of my life would suffer, because I was there for that client, basically, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It didn't matter what else was going on in my life, it had to take a back seat. That can take a toll on other things in your life. But, you know, I would expect that if I was in that situation, that my lawyer would probably put as much time and effort into it as I do.

What is it that keeps you going? Is it the person's story who you're defending? Knowing that story and feeling that he's really innocent or, at least, his innocence should be proved in court?

It's not always a question of innocence or guilt. Very often in our criminal justice system, people are overcharged. They did something, but not something as extreme as what's alleged in the accusatory instrument. The real thing is a desire to see things change. And to the extent that this case can have an impact, as you said before, on affecting the minds of just twelve people -- not just about this case but prospectively changing their outlook on justice, on racism, on the drug wars, on sexism, on all kinds of issues -- it's terrific to be a vital part of that.

Going back to your background again, where did you get this sense of the big picture? That comes from your parents' influence or from the general culture that they created in your growing-up years? Or the sixties also?

The sixties, obviously, played a large part of that, because there was a sense of empowerment that you personally, by taking action, could make a difference. And so whatever work we got involved in, we thought, "Well, God, this is how we can make a difference." Whether it's one small trial, or a painting, or a mural, it was going to be, hopefully, powerful and have that kind of significant impact. So that was the sixties. There's no question about that. There's no question it was the parents [as well].

But just reading about people like Clarence Darrow and taking on unpopular causes and using the trial. It could be something as simple -- simple? -- as a murder case like Leopold and Loeb, where it wasn't just about trying to prevent their execution, although they had committed a most grisly crime. But it was also, then, educating the entire nation about mental health issues and about capital punishment. Using the trial, with a case, as a platform for that debate. It's a very wonderful opportunity.

So the courtroom, the adversary process is really about a bully pulpit also, not just the innocence of the particular person.

It's not always about innocence.


Because very often, you may be representing somebody who actually committed a crime.


And you find yourself in a situation where you're not going to go to trial. We're trying to seek the best position of the case. We're trying to put the person's criminal conduct into context to show that there are other problems involved here. There are different ways for the system to address it, short of sending someone to prison for the rest of his or her life. So all of that's in play constantly.

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