Spread of Innocence Projects seen as 'new civil rights
Like a growing number of lawyers who've formed "innocence projects" around the country, Joe McCulloch is learning how tough it is to be a caged man's last hope. The letters flooding his office are filled with spelling and grammar errors; they're usually pleading, sometimes heartbreaking.
"I am one of the Innocence Pepal in Prison," wrote a South Carolina inmate in his fourth year of a life sentence for murder. "I know you have 100 of people wrighting to you and I know you cant help everyone but I am asking you for some help.
"I don't want my kid to have to go throue life withe out her Dad cause some Hot shout cope just wantes to look good. Again Please help me and my family to be back together."
Files at the Palmetto Innocence Project's office in Columbia, S.C., bulge with similar letters, even though it's been around only since December.
"It's very frustrating, VERY frustrating, to understand that of those (100 or so) letters, there are some in there who, in fact, are wrongly convicted," says McCulloch, the program's director. "How we find the needles in the haystack is what we're now struggling, wrestling with."
Inspired by the successes of big-name attorneys like Barry Scheck and of no-name students from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, more than three dozen like-minded groups have sprouted around the country in the past decade.
These volunteer coalitions are made up of police officers, investigative reporters, defense attorneys, students and professors.
"We started out with a very simple goal, and that is to walk innocent people out of prison. And what it has evolved into is nothing less than a new civil rights movement in this country," says Peter Neufeld, who worked with Scheck to found the original Innocence Project at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 1992.
Most groups will take only cases in which the inmate claims actual innocence, not self-defense or some other mitigating circumstance.
Some states, including California and New York, have appropriated money to fund these efforts, but most innocence projects rely solely on private donations and volunteer labor.
Jensie Anderson runs the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center gratis on top of her job teaching legal writing at the University of Utah.
"I've always held the belief that one innocent person in prison is one too many," says Anderson.
Some of the projects rely as much on old-fashioned digging
as fancy science to prove their clients' innocence. The Second Look Program
at New York's Brooklyn Law School takes only non-DNA cases. All 11 people
"The DNA cases have been really important for the innocence projects, because they establish innocence with such scientific certainty," says Keith Findley, co-director of the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. "But beyond that, they have opened people's eyes and ... given a new legitimacy to claims of innocence, even where there is no DNA."
The Cardozo group recently launched an Innocence Network to pool resources and share information among the projects.
Jessica Harry, a third-year law student at Wisconsin, is in her second year with that school's Innocence Project.
"It's not like we're all conspiracy theorists," she says. "I think there is justice out there. It's just, (in) some cases, it's really hard to obtain it."