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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The Innocence Project

Tell us about the Innocence Project and how it came about.

First of all, you've got to back up a bit to see how we got involved in the interface of science and law in the first place. I have no background in science. My partner, Barry Scheck, has no background in science. In fact, like a lot of other lawyers, it was the difficulty in comprehending chemistry that moved us to law school in the first place. The last thing we ever wanted to see, as lawyers, was any kind of physics or chemical equation. But what happens is that you have a client whose life and liberty are at stake, and it forces you to learn particular disciplines. It might be biology or chemistry. It might be a law of physics. It might be toxicology. It could be any of those sciences. And you have no choice but to learn them, because if you don't learn them, then someone may abuse the information and send out an erroneous piece of information to the jury, and your client will suffer as a result.

So you start learning these things. The first thing I ever got involved in as a lawyer was forensic psychiatry. I'd never seen a therapist as a kid, had no experience with psychologists, and I had my own biases and prejudices against the whole field. But it was being used a whole lot in the criminal system. So I got very much involved in forensic psychiatry and tried to demystify it a lot, and became kind of a legal expert in that field, long before I got involved in the hard sciences. I did several test cases in New York and elsewhere on the limitations of forensic psychiatry, and on battered women's syndrome and things like that. I litigated the first successful use of a battered women's defense in Manhattan, for instance, in the mid-1980s.

In the late 1980s, we had a case involving blood evidence in Bronx County. I was no longer a public defender. A man had been convicted and there was a question of whether or not he actually committed the crime. He said he was innocent. The lawyer did not do a great job. The Legal Aid Society couldn't handle the appeal and they asked Barry and me to do it. It was at that time that we first learned about this new technology called DNA typing. Eventually, we couldn't prove his innocence through DNA, because there wasn't enough evidence left, though we did exonerate him using another technique. But that was our first window into the power of DNA technology.

What we realized as far back as 1989, 1990 -- about the same time that the FBI opened up the first major DNA laboratory in the country to handle criminal cases -- is that this is a much more robust technology than what they've been using for the last thirty years. We always had a feeling that things like eye witness identification are not terribly reliable. Wouldn't it be interesting to go back and look at some of those convictions with this more powerful technology and see whether or not they got the right man? So that's when it started, around 1990/1991, looking at these old cases.

The key here is that with the technology of PCR [polymerase chain reaction*] and what can now, as a result of that methodology, be done with DNA. You can actually identify who the guilty party is or whether someone is not the guilty party.

In certain cases, that's true. [But] there's a difference between the associative value of DNA evidence and the probative value. If the DNA evidence you're looking at is semen collected after a rape, it's very powerful evidence, both to identify and to exclude. If on the other hand, now, you're looking at DNA evidence of hair found in a room where a crime occurred, yes, you can perhaps identify the source of the hair, but doesn't mean that he had anything to do with the crime.

What you and Barry Scheck did, then, was to establish, at Cardoza Law School at Yeshiva University, a program that deploys students to research these cases.

The first thing that happened is that we began doing these cases on an ad hoc basis. Someone would write us a letter; we would try and respond to it and take on the case. And we realized that this was inadequate. So we established a clinic in about 1991 at Cardoza Law School, Yeshiva University, to systematically receive letters from inmates from all over the country, process them and, hopefully, do DNA testing.

We have about sixteen students. We've had between fifteen and twenty students since the project's inception, who work with us on these cases. We read through hundreds and hundreds of letters from prisoners. We try to weed out those cases which are completely inappropriate. We have a very simple criteria:

  1. The case had to involve identity as an issue. So, for instance, if it was a murder case and the defense was justification, the person may be innocent but we're not interested as a project. But if identity was an issue, we'll take on the case. The same with sexual assault cases.
  2. It has to be a case where there was biological evidence collected during the initial investigation. Most crimes of violence involve no biological evidence, and a person may be innocent, but there's nothing we can do about it. So there had to have been biological evidence.
  3. Almost the most difficult task for us is to locate that evidence now. In three-quarters of the cases we take on, the evidence has been lost or destroyed in the intervening years.

These are all cases that had been tried sometime in the past, and you're now reopening them, if the basis exists for such a re-examination?

These are old cases which not only have been tried and convictions resulted, but their appeals have been exhausted, their collateral attacks have been exhausted. There is nothing else. We have the court of last resort for these individuals. And at this point in time, we're up to about eighty-six or eighty-seven people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing around the country. We have an active caseload of 200 to 300. We have a backlog of about 1,000 cases. So it's still a pretty demanding project.

Next page: The Criminal Justice System

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