his cell on death row, Ron Williamson screamed “I am an innocent
man. I didn’t kill Debbie Carter,” disturbing the whole
cell block. Just five days before he was to be executed, he was
found innocent on the basis of DNA testing.
was exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project, which facilitates
the use of DNA testing for prisoners who claim to be innocent. If
the DNA findings back their claims, the project works to free them.
Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter
Neufeld at the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York
City. It has assisted in about two-thirds of the 131 DNA exonerations
in the United States since 1976. Twelve of these were death row
cases. The work is done by law students on a voluntary basis under
supervision. The professors select 20 students and it is “very
competitive,” according to Madeleine Severin, one of the students
in the project. Each student serves a one-year term and is given
five or six cases.
first step in the process is for the assistant director of the Innocence
Project, Huy Dao, to screen the cases. Prisoners initially send
in a summary of the crime. Then they must send whatever documents
they have to Dao, who decides if they qualify. In order to be accepted
there must theoretically be biological evidence, even if it is not
evidence must be blood, semen, saliva, sweat, hair, or skin, which
came from the alleged perpetrator at the crime scene. If it is recovered,
the cost of the testing is between $1,500 and $4,000. Most rapes
would qualify, but less than 10 percent of murders would.
Unless there was a struggle, or the attacker had gotten blood or
one of the other substances on clothing, there would be nothing
to test. (The Innocence Project also helped to found the Innocence
Network—a chain of 25 affiliate organizations, which often
work on cases where DNA testing is not possible.)
the initial investigation, the work shifts to the students. They
start on an evidence hunt that takes from a few months to four years
to finish. Out of the cases accepted, 75 percent have to be abandoned
because evidence has been thrown out, altered, or lost.
Williamson’s troubles began in 1984 when he was imprisoned
in Oklahoma, with a woman named Terri Holland, for passing bad checks.
Holland would become a key witness against Williamson at his 1987
trial for rape and murder (which took place in 1982).
lies, plus the lies of another snitch, James Harjo, about an alleged
accomplice, Dennis Fritz, kept Williamson and Fritz in jail for
11 years, with Fritz serving part of a life sentence and Williamson
nearly killed by the state of Oklahoma. At wit’s end, Fritz
contacted the Innocence Project.
that point, Fritz, Williamson, and the students at the Innocence
Project came up against one of the most deep-seated and disturbing
problems of U.S. jurisprudence: that prisoners have no right to
prove their innocence—by DNA or any other means.
the state level, many laws restrict post-conviction DNA testing
to between six months and two years after the person has been convicted.
(It can take as much as four years to locate biological evidence.)
In response to the flood of exonerations, 28 states have changed
their laws concerning DNA testing. Before the law was changed in
Virginia, a prisoner had only three weeks from the date of conviction
to make a motion to reopen a case on the basis of new evidence.
The law now has no time limitations.
original legislation had suited Chief Justice Rehnquist just fine,
since he refused to hear an appeal to the Supreme Court by a man
named Walter Snyder. Though Snyder had a good DNA test, he was beyond
the three week time limit—the most important factor for Rehnquist.
In their book
Scheck, Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer quote Reinquist: “A claim
of actual innocence is not in itself a constitutional claim.”
This position, fortunately, is not shared by all the other Supreme
it comes to what is happening on the street, the script is a little
different. The average district attorney is under pressure to convict
someone and it looks bad to admit to mistakes by reopening cases.
The rationale is that if the trial is “fair” then the
outcome is acceptable. You have a constitutional right to a fair
trial, but not necessarily a fair outcome.
the Williamson-Fritz case, the Innocence Project was able to get
the DNA testing for Fritz and Williamson. The results vindicated
both of them and they were freed in 1999.
60 of the 75 exonerations resulting from DNA testing since the reinstatement
of the death penalty in 1976, mistaken identity has been the leading
cause of wrongful convictions for all types of crime.
identity, combined with suggestive identification by the police,
was behind one of Madeleine Severin’s cases. The defendant
was Gene Bibbins. The case involved a 13-year-old girl who was raped
at knifepoint in 1986 in her house in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The rapist also stole a radio.
first she described her attacker as a black man with long, curly
hair and wearing jeans.
the police didn’t write this down,” said Severin. After
the victim was shown Bibbins in person, she identified him as her
assailant, even though he was wearing shorts and had short hair.
“Only then did the police write down a description, which was
based on Bibbins.” He was carrying what looked like the broken
radio the rapist had stolen. At that point, they showed the girl
the stolen radio before they showed her Bibbins.
Severin got this case, she didn’t have to go on an evidence
hunt because “the student who had the case last year located
it in a storage facility of the Clerk of the Court’s office
in East Baton Rouge.” The DNA tests were done in December 2002.
The tests came back exonerating Bibbins, Severin wrote a Motion
to Vacate Conviction, which was then signed by her supervising attorney.
In March 2003 the district judge in Louisiana signed the motion.
At that point, Bibbins had been in jail for 16 years. The victim
still maintains that Bibbins was the one who raped her, in spite
of two DNA tests that excluded him.
the fall of 1986, two women were raped and killed in Oklahoma City,
Oklahoma. Robert Miller was in the police station when the police
asked him if he could help them solve these crimes.
can see through the killer’s eyes. I got these powers from
my Choctaw grandmother. I dreamed about it one night,” Miller
answered. After getting this response, the police took advantage
of his fragile mental condition by putting a hidden video camera
in the room and taping his talk with them. He seemed to know more
about the crime than he should have. They considered this a confession.
the 1988 trial, Miller denied any involvement in the crime, but
the jury believed what they heard on the tape. Later, at the 1996
trial, the judge ruled that there were many factual errors in the
tape and many outright denials of involvement. He said that the
tape could not be used as primary evidence. Miller was tested in
1996 and found innocent. He was freed in 1999, after being incarcerated
on death row for nine years. His experience is not uncommon since
the police often prey on the mentally ill or mentally retarded.
1981, Jimmy Ray Bromgard was living in Billings, Montana when a
little girl was raped in her house. The semen couldn’t be typed
and there were no fingerprints that matched Bomgard’s in the
house. At the trial, the girl testified that she was only 65 percent
sure that it was Bromgard. Instead of making a motion to withhold
this identification as unreliable, the defense attorney did nothing.
Most of the case for the prosecution rested on an analysis of head
and pubic hairs, which proved to be fraudulent.
defense attorney did not challenge this by hiring experts who would
investigate and testify against this false evidence.
to a letter dated September 30, 2002 from Peter Neufeld to Mike
McGrath, attorney general of Montana, he also failed to make an
opening statement, even though studies have shown that juries tend
to make up their minds after hearing opening statements. He also
did not file an appeal after the defendant’s conviction. Bromgard
was exonerated in October 2002 after 15 and a half years in jail.
part of its activities, the Innocence Project spearheaded legislation
called the Innocence Protection Act of 2001. It would have helped
the states provide well- trained defense attorneys in capital cases.
It would also have ensured access to DNA testing to death row and
non-death row inmates who had a reasonable claim. Unfortunately,
this legislation never got through Congress.
gives many examples of reforms and legislation that
could minimize the number of wrongful convictions, aside from DNA
testing (which acts as a correction not a cure). One example is
preventing forensic fraud. The book says that no labs should be
under police control. Another problem is with prosecutors’
attitudes, i.e., that such reforms are not likely to be instituted
soon, if at all.
sums up the problem with prosecutors: “The job of the prosecutor
is to prosecute guilty people. It’s not his [or her] job to
defend old, incorrect rulings. There is nothing inconsistent about
a prosecutor being tough on crime and the reopening of cases where
innocent people have been convicted. No legitimate purpose is served
by keeping an innocent person in jail. Fear of the truth is not
a good reason to keep someone in prison.”
Innocence Project will continue to bring justice through the voices
and actions of students like Severin, who is dedicated to playing
“as much of a role as possible to help innocent people
prove their innocence.”
is a retired librarian. She is a member of New Yorkers Against the
Death Penalty and the New York Writers Coalition.