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

Page 6 of 6


You mentioned a burgeoning civil rights movement within the system?


Tell us about that a little.

What we're trying to do, initially -- for the most selfish reasons of all: we had a backlog of 1,000 cases -- is to try and create other Innocence Projects around the country. And not just to do it around DNA, but to have Innocence Projects take on the much tougher cases of proving that someone was wrongly convicted where there's no biological evidence. Because remember, the same causes, whether they be mistaken I.D. or police misconduct or a lousy lawyer, could occur in any kind of case. It doesn't have to involve DNA at all. So to go back and investigate all these kinds of cases.

So we now have about thirty Innocence Projects around the country that we helped develop, primarily at law schools, but also in journalism schools, where people are going back and looking at old cases, where they're drafting model legislation for their particular states, where they're going out and educating schools and colleges and communities about social justice issues. And remember, these issues are not just not what goes on in the courtroom, they're dealing with things like racism. They're dealing with issues like poverty. Or they're dealing with the unequal access to experts that the defense has and the prosecution has. We're dealing with the way that the mental health industry unfairly functions within the criminal justice system. Many of the other sensitive issues in America play out in criminal justice. So these thirty projects have taken off around the country and, hopefully, someday we'll have seventy-five projects. And they're all doing legislation. They're all doing education. They're all doing social injustice reform. That's what I call a Civil Rights Movement.

Let's talk about the albatross over the system, namely the death penalty, and the extent to which we seem to remain committed to having a death penalty in this country, whereas so much of the world has abolished the death penalty. How do you explain that continuing commitment to that form of punishment?

We're in good company. There are two other countries I know of that are willing to execute juveniles. There's the Congo and Iran. So I guess you could, maybe, try and draw some inferences if you choose to.

Historically, the debate has been philosophical, moral, and political. What's interesting now is that, all of a sudden, it's shifting. With this wave of DNA exonerations, not just the DNA exonerations, but ninety-five, ninety-six people have walked off of death row, exonerated since the death penalty came back in the seventies. Those people turned out to be innocent. So, all of a sudden, people are no longer focusing on the philosophical, the moral. They're questioning whether or not the system of capital justice in America is reliable. Once they conclude that it is not reliable, then maybe we shouldn't have it. Maybe there should be a moratorium, at least, if not outright abolition. The whole moratorium movement in the last eighteen months has taken off in a way that was completely unforeseeable. I think the more these exonerations occur, the more that movement will grow.

What about the tendency in this society to criminalize various kinds of social behavior? We're now being made aware of the consequences of all the drug legislation that may have gone too far, in terms of creating crimes that are filling up the prisons and that don't address the underlying drug problem in the country. Do we over-legislate to solve social problems that should be solved in other ways?

Well, we've always done that. We've always said it's much easier just to take somebody off the streets. But the biggest consequence of that is the stigmatization of black youth in America, whether it's drug crimes or other kinds of anti-social behavior. We've reached a crises situation where one out of every four kids who's black is under the control of law enforcement in this country, whether they're in prison, under a juvenile probation, or on parole. And I guess that's one way to reduce crime, but it's a kind of social genocide, which is probably unacceptable in any kind of civilized world, and it means we have to look within and, perhaps, come up with a different solution.

What, in retrospect, has been your most satisfying case? Or have there been so many that it's hard to pinpoint one?

There were a lot of very satisfying cases. I'm very fortunate in that I can now choose which cases to take on because of the issues that are involved. So on the one hand, certainly, these exonerations are incredibly important. But, for instance, we represent a gentlemen named Abner Louima who was tortured in a precinct in New York City. A Haitian man who was tortured by two white police officers, who then had the bravado to take the stick with his feces and blood on it and walk out into the precinct and wave it around and brag about this act, knowing full well that all these fellow officers would remain silent and maintain that "blue wall." To break that open and to bring that suit forward, for instance, and to do it in a novel way, not just to hold the city accountable, but to go after a police union (which is hardly a union -- a police union that's responsible for that) and hold them accountable and make that the first case in the country, to hold a police union accountable for brutality, which will then be utilized, hopefully, around the country in all kinds of community is, in itself, very rewarding.

But you know, on the most personal level ... I mean that's obviously very rewarding because of what it's going on, that is, questions of race and brutality and police accountability, and what have you; it's huge. But the very first time I went down to Virginia, there was a guy named Tony Snyder, who was a young man who had been unjustly convicted. We worked on his case, and eventually we got the governor to agree to a pardon. Because in Virginia you can't go back into court. Your only resort is to the governor. And finally, after a lot of struggle, he agreed to pardon. I called his mom up, who had been fighting for him for years. She works at the post office and she took on a separate job, just to fight for his case. Anyway and I told her I was going down to Virginia to help get her son out, and I was going to fly into Richmond and she should meet me there. I had never met her before. And it's a small plane, small airport and so when you arrive on the tarmac; you don't go through one of these bridges into the terminal. You walk down some steps into the outdoors. And I walked down the steps and I looked off into the distance and there was this very, very large woman and she was literally bounding down the tarmac. She came up to me, and I'm not a little guy, and she grabbed me in this bear hug and lifted me off the ground. That feeling, that sense at that moment is probably one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life, knowing that you could give that woman so much comfort and so much pleasure. And that's the kind of feeling that I'll probably carry with me to the grave.

What do you make of this fascination with the criminal justice system in the popular culture, with the lawyer as a kind of a role model, but then the slowness with which we actually change things? Is there any connection there or it doesn't surprise you?

No, the lawyer can be a continuation of the Western myth, whether he's the gunslinger or wearing the badge as the peace officer. That's always been a dominant myth in our pop culture. And so the lawyer, certainly, becomes a contemporary symbol of that. But people generally are completely unable to transfer what they see on the TV screen into their daily lives. Unfortunately, it has a very, very short life span. As I said before, we have a very short-term memory. When it comes to television, it's, you know, it could be an hour and fifteen minutes long, and that's it.

Students watching this program, what would you advise them, if they hear your story and the experiences that you've had and the career you undertook? What lessons would you draw from your own life that might be in the form of advice to them about how they might prepare for their own future?

Well, you know, it's interesting, because I have two children, and my wife is also a law professor and is a director of a criminal justice project. And as far as both of our children are concerned, the last thing in the world that they would ever become are lawyers, much less criminal defense lawyers. It's the absolute last thing. They've gravitated more to the arts. And I've never tried to, in any way, influence them to the contrary.

However, I think what I've learned from all of this is that probably the single most important thing about choosing a profession is having a passion for it; that there's no amount of financial security or getting along with your folks or peers as a substitute for really having a passion about what you do each day. That's going to provide you with the mental stability to carry you through.

My son says I'm a consequentialist because I take on these causes because it gives me a personal satisfaction and that that's not a great reason. You should only do it for the purest of principals. In fact, you should be able to punish yourself and take on acts which are contrary to your personal wants, just to challenge that. I don't buy that.

It's having a passion for trying to improve things; to make the world not just a little bit better, but a lot better and to realize now, with the emergence of technology ... the last century is the very first time in the history of mankind where the majority of the planet did not make its living off the land. And the rapidity at which technology and science is advancing, particularly in areas like criminal justice or in health care, makes it possible now to do so many things that were just unacceptable or unbelievable just a decade ago, that to be a part of that is as good as it gets.

One final question. If you go back to screenwriting, will the screenplay be about the criminal justice system?

Well, I've written a couple of screenplays. My partner Barry Scheck and I write screenplays together, also. We've written a couple about the criminal justice system. We've also written a couple about the media. I don't know. They're all about life and sort of reflecting on ... I guess what it really comes down to is my own life and trying to work out certain problems that I've had over the years. So I have a film on the drawing board right now -- I don't know if it will get made -- which is a much more personal piece, not necessarily involving criminal justice, but trying to resolve some of my own contradictions. We'll see what happens.

On that note, Peter, thank you very much for taking the time for being with us today. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2001, Regents of the University of California

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To the Innocence Project website

See also the interview with co-author Barry Scheck: DNA and the Criminal Justice System (July 2003)