Barry Scheck Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Conversation with Barry Scheck, Professor of Law, Yeshiva University; and Co-Director of The Innocence Project, July 25, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Barry, welcome back to Berkeley.

Great to be here.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City, in Queens, and then raised in Manhattan. I was a child of the sixties, and was pretty active in the civil rights and anti-war movements as a teenager. And then on to Yale University, and was involved in the "Dump Johnson" caucus at the Yale Law School. I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy; then I campaigned for Robert Kennedy. I gave draft cards that were put on the steps of the Pentagon, and we all went around and tried to levitate the Pentagon. I worked in the Lindsey administration as an intern. I was involved in a lot of political activities in what's called the sixties, but was really the early seventies, and then I came out here for law school.

What led you into law? Why did you decide to do law as a way of realizing your social and political activism?

I grew up in an era where one saw that, in the civil rights movement, law was an instrument of social change and was essential to winning the rights of African Americans in the south and across the country -- the right to vote, to participate in public services in this country. It's the great movement of our time. What's been accomplished in this country within our lifetimes in terms of civil rights (it's far from the completed agenda, we all know), and what's happened in South Africa, which I never believed would occur in my lifetime, is really extraordinary to think about. And lawyers had a lot to do with it. In fact, we were all probably oversold on the extent to which law could be an instrument of social change. By the time I graduated from law school there was a whole generation of us that felt like, "Oh, we'll be able to do that, we're people's lawyers." Then we found out that it's hard to find that social space within the law; it's not so easy.

Go back a minute, because I'm curious as to how your parents influenced you in these directions.

My father came from a family in New York City where he had seven brothers and one sister. They grew up on the Lower East Side, and it was one of those poverty situations, where if you were the last kid up in the morning you didn't have clothes. He didn't even get a high school education. He was a tap dancer; he learned how to tap dance from a black man who was a janitor at a bank where he worked. My father "danced black," as they say, and he literally was a tap dancer. He played the Apollo Theater as an act, and the Borsch Belt, and then eventually had singing and dancing schools, and produced early television on the streets of New York for the DuMont Network -- very few people remember DuMont Television. He had a show called Star Time, where there were people that sang and danced, kids that would come out of the dancing and singing schools, sort of vertically integrated. He wound up managing some of them. Connie Francis was his principal act. For a while he managed Bobby Darrin; Mary Wells, the folk singer; a great, great cabaret singer named Hazel Scott, who actually has a very interesting political history. So he was in show business.

Did you all talk about politics around the dinner table?

Yes. My father was always part of a progressive political movement, and the kind of people that were labor organizers, people who were accused of being members of the Communist Party in the fifties and were blacklisted; so I grew up in a household where this tradition of political activism was alive. I was basically told, "You can do anything you want in this world, but first you've got to get a license."

So you came to Berkeley.

I have to admit that I went to Yale as an undergraduate, and by the time I was finished, we were all caught up in the politics of time. I remember working on the jury selection in the Bobby Seale trial in New Haven. Most people forget that Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, came out with a statement saying that he didn't think a black revolutionary could get a fair trial in New Haven -- that statement was amazing. Seale was acquitted, as it turns out.

But I never thought of myself, "Oh, I'm going to be a criminal lawyer," or "I'm going to be ...." That never was in my thinking. I got into a few law schools. I decided to come here because I could become a state resident, and the tuition at one of the top ten law schools in the country was only $435 a semester, which I actually was able to make playing poker. That was number one. Number two, Berkeley was considered a "liberated zone," and I had never been here. I wasn't going with the idea, "Gee, I really want to do law now." I was sort of feeling like, "I'll go live in Berkeley, hang out on Telegraph Avenue, and not have to pay a lot of tuition, and I'll sort of do law school on the side." That was my original intention. I got much more involved in it, of course.

Where did this interest in bringing science to the law come from? Was that just serendipity? Were you interested in science?

No. I did start off in college, oddly enough, with a concentration in economic history, so I had some interesting history and interesting economics. I worked as a research assistant for James Tobin for awhile. I didn't take any biology, I didn't really take math courses; I wasn't science oriented. I never took science courses. I wound up being an American Studies major, taking courses with Robert Penn Warren, reading all these great books. I was much more interested in literature and the arts and cinema, the theater -- those became my principal interests -- and sociology, psychology. I was not at all oriented towards any of the hard sciences.

Here at Berkeley, when I was at law school, I worked for the United Farm Workers Union, I did things on childhood and government with Jack Coons, a professor here, and Steve Sugarman, Robert Menukin. I didn't do constitutional law. I fell into it when I became a public defender back in New York, and started doing cases.

I get the sense as you describe your education that it was a generalized consciousness that affected you and radicalized you -- really, the times. Were there specific events that moved you up on the ladder of thinking radically about the world around you?

Yes, sure, there were specific events. Everyone in my generation had to come to terms with the war in Vietnam, and before that had to come to terms with the civil rights movement. Those were the two great movements of our time. "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" -- Eldridge Cleaver said that, and it's true. So I was always motivated by the civil rights tradition, and of course these anti-war activities. I was at a lot of these events -- the "Dump Johnson" caucus at the Yale Law School was where people first got together to campaign for Gene McCarthy. So I was lucky enough to be there and do that. That brought down a president -- can you imagine? You're eighteen years old and you say, "Let's all go and do something," and the president resigns! It was great, because it gave us the feeling that we could change history. That's a little heady and probably a little arrogant for people at that age and at that time, but also, we were facing the draft and facing the war, and we had to end it. So those things propelled me forward, and things naturally followed from that.

I was lucky to have a father who always saw these things from the point of view of having come from a life of poverty and a working class background. It was great to work here for the United Farm Workers. That was a very pivotal consciousness changing experience. There were some lawyers for the Farm Workers' Union that taught me a lot about guerilla law, about being the people's lawyer, that was very useful. I was always probably an over-intellectualized type anyhow, so I had that academic side no matter what I was doing, so I fell into a very good social space within the law. I was lucky.

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