Three authors challenged law school students last night to leave the halls of academic and seek out injustice.
Former O.J. Simpson lawyer Barry Scheck joined the co-authors of his new book, Actual Innocence, lawyer Peter Neufeld and columnist Jim Dwyer, in a panel discussion about the possibilities for DNA to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
The trio discussed their work over the last decade on "The Innocence Project," a program based at the Cardozo School of Law in Wisconsin, which has helped to exonerate 70 people--including eight on death row--in North America using DNA evidence.
The trio documented 10 cases in their book, painting a portrait of a justice system full of mishandled evidence, corrupt prosecutors and mistaken identities.
"These people could not get heard," Dwyer said. "The system didn't work."
Joining the authors were L. Michael Seidman, a Georgetown University law professor, Bill Kovach, Nieman Foundation curator, and Richard Lewontin, Agassiz research professor in comparative zoology.
Each approached the issue from a different perspective--scholar, journalist and scientist--but agreed on the fundamental basis.
"We can't get rid of this problem, but we can do a hell of a lot better," Seidman said.
Besides basic human rights issues, freeing wrongly accused people is also a public safety issue, Scheck said.
"Every time you exonerate an innocent person, you stand a better chance of catching the guilty person before they commit another crime," he said.
In 15 of the cases where the Innocence Project has freed someone, police have captured the guilty person--including serial rapists and killers.
The panel suggested a myriad of changes to the current criminal justice system, from the simple--videotape all interrogations--to the more complicated--accreditation and standardization of all crime labs.
Education is needed across the board, panelists said. Police need to be educated in how to handle physical evidence and students need to be taught about scientific evidence. As it stands, lawyers are intimidated by DNA evidence.
"Ver-dicts will be false-dicts because of our reliance on scientists we don't feel we can question," Lewontin said.
The problem begins in law school, panelists said. Students are not taught about forensic evidence.
They suggested establishing forensic fellowships between the law school and the medical school.
Part of their national book tour, the authors said, is to encourage other schools to take on a part of the "Innocence Project"--where law and journalism students investigate falsely accused people.
However, the single biggest change that needs to happen, they argued, was the creation of an "Innocence Commission" to study why innocent people were convicted. England and Canada already have similar groups.
"It's part of our social fabric to study when disasters happen," he told The Crimson before the panel. Every time a train derails, a plane crashes, or another disaster takes a life, someone investigates, he said.
"When an innocent person gets convicted, that's a disaster," he said.
But while the authors championed a series of criminal justice reforms, Seidman also said he worried that the efforts might alter the presumption of innocence to those who remain accused.
He said he worried that people might assume others to be guilty.
"Now that we know all these people are guilty, let's execute the bastards," he said.
Scheck said that too often, people focus on the victory of setting free someone.
"The focus should be on how they got in [jail], not what got them out," he said.
Scheck ended the night by challenging his audience to get out and join the "Innocence Project." The education they will receive in helping end injustice is more rewarding than anything they can imagine, he said.
"Avoid the dot-coms, avoid the easy route of investment banks," Scheck told the half-full Ames Courtroom. "You're going to do a lot better by going out and looking at these cases."
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