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 Criminal Justice System

Are you surprised by the number of people that you can prove should be exonerated?

Yes. In fact, it's counterintuitive. We always assumed, even as defense attorneys, that the overall majority of people were guilty, just in terms of the people who come to us. We're exonerating about 65 percent of the people who actually go to lab. Fifty-five percent of the people who go to the laboratory, the test results come out in their favor.

It sounds to me, because you mentioned forensic psychiatry on the one hand, and now this, that you have latched on to methods of proving the truth that wind up shaking up the system in some important ways. Why is that?

What's extraordinary about these cases is that everybody believed, for the most part, that there was overwhelming evidence of guilt. DNA evidence is then utilized to prove that someone is, in fact, innocent. Once you prove they're innocent, you now go back and you look at that same evidence, but you look at it from a very, very different perspective. You know that there's something wrong with that evidence. Either people were mistaken, or people were engaging in misconduct. And you can do that for the first time with certainty. You couldn't do that before.

You know there have been a lot of people who have written books, who've done studies prior to DNA testing, on the ghosts of the unjustly convicted. But the problem is that they can never argue with sufficient certainty to a hostile audience that these people were, indeed, innocent. It takes somebody like Hurricane Carter in New Jersey. Most people may believe now that he's innocent, but there are still many people living in New Jersey who say, "Oh, no, no, no. I think he was really guilty." But with these DNA exonerations, there is no debate anymore. There is a consensus, or much more than a consensus; in fact, an almost unanimity that these people were stone cold innocent, but nevertheless, were convicted of something that they didn't do.

So what you can then do is go behind that and ask, "What went wrong with the criminal justice system to allow all these innocent people to be prosecuted, convicted and, in the case of eleven of those eighty-six, to be sentenced to death?" But for the serendipitous intervention of DNA testing, God knows they would be executed.

In looking at your book one discovers, and you have discovered in the course of this project, that it's often not [just] one reason that the system has failed. There are a number of reasons.

Yes, we find there's a dozen primary factors that are responsible for unjust convictions; obviously, the most common being a mistaken eye-witnesses testimony. But there are many others. We usually don't find them alone. We find that in the same cases where witnesses are mistaken, prosecutors may overstep the line, in terms of misconduct; defense attorneys are asleep in the courtroom, they're not doing their job. We find, unfortunately, that even what has been called forensic science all these years, all too frequently has nothing to do with science and it's just opinion evidence or art, and is often erroneous. And, most tragically, we find that racism has a lot to do with who gets unjustly convicted and who doesn't.

Let's talk about race and also link that to class. Isn't it the case the system is racially biased and that the poorer classes have a much harder time seeking justice and obtaining it?

There's no question that if you're white and you're well off, you have a much better chance of having a fair trial and getting justice ultimately than if you're poor, and particularly if you're poor and black or Hispanic in this country. Our data show that you're five times more likely to be wrongly convicted if you're a black man charged with sexually assaulting a white woman than anybody else. It's that simple. What's unfortunate is that for a lot of the other causes of unjust convictions, we have reforms in mind that can be put into place to correct those problems and make the system a lot fairer. The only cause we don't have a reform for yet is racism. And it's, obviously, much more deep-seated.

We've moved, in fact, from just doing the Innocence Project to doing other civil rights cases. We, for instance, represent and have represented for the last few years, two of the four young men on the New Jersey turnpike who were racially profiled by state troopers and then shot at. That case precipitated a huge inquiry statewide and nationwide into the phenomenon of racial profiling. What's most remarkable about that, although there are a lot of things remarkable about that case, is that eventually the federal government stepped in, and the state police entered into a consent decree where they would engage in a whole number of reforms.

Ninety percent of the reforms have now been implemented. They went out and they checked the numbers again, and it turns out the state troopers are stopping just as many black people as they were before they implemented these reforms. And they're searching just as many as they were before they implemented these reforms. And that's because you can't just tell someone not to look at black people. It's ridiculous. We have to reeducate these people. We have to get rid of the supervisors who were responsible for doing this a long time ago and who are now teaching the new line officers to engage in racial profiling. These problems are a lot more deep rooted and they're going to take a lot more creative thinking before we can rectify them.

I guess the issue here is that there are limits to what the legal system can accomplish, unless you get more pervasive social and political change. Is that correct? In other words, doesn't society as a whole have to confront and change its attitudes towards racism?

Oh, absolutely. But I don't have a solution on how to do that. Every study that's been conducted so far, any reasonable study suggests that if you're black, you're more likely to be arrested, you're more likely to be convicted. All other things being equal, you're more likely to sentenced to death, if the victim was a white person as opposed to the victim being a black person. You're more likely, if you're a juvenile, to be charged as an adult. You're more likely to get a longer prison sentence if you're black. Every single element in the criminal justice system is stacked against people of color. And if the evidence is pretty overwhelming, people just have to roll up their sleeves to be thinking about how we're going to remedy that.

One last thing on that is that -- and it came up in the New Jersey case we were talking about before, the profiling case -- is that one of the young men that we represent had said, "My parents were from South Carolina. They told me about all the adversity they experienced down there, and I lived in a community in New York City which was pretty integrated. I went to an integrated high school, and I never experienced any of that. I thought that was all the past." But you know, what you have to realize is it's only it's only one hundred years ago that slavery was outlawed. It's only forty-five years ago that de jure discrimination was prohibited. Those are short periods of time in the greater scheme of things, and we still have a lot of that around. And we're going to have a lot of it around for a long time to come.

Next page: Reforming the Criminal Justice System

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