Posted by: johnocunningham | December 23, 2014

A Truly Stunning Pro Bono Legal Feat Snubbed by the Press

I have always thought that this time of year was perfect for publishers of legal trade magazines to do a year-end “highlight reel” of the legal profession’s greatest pro bono stories. We hear a lot of bad things about the legal profession in the mainstream press, and we rarely hear much good. Unfortunately, when I have pitched editors of legal trade publications on year-end pro bono stories, they seem no more interested than the rest of the press (which is to say “not at all”).

So, I am publishing on my own blog a year-end “feel good” story about the pro bono work in the profession. I also intend to do so every year at this time, so feel free to send great story ideas to me in the future.

For the year 2014, I have chosen to highlight the work of the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal program founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992. I have personally interviewed several men who were wrongly accused and convicted, imprisoned for years, and released only after legal volunteers of the Innocence Project proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that they were both legally and factually innocent. The impression left on me by these men has never faded, and has left me wondering how many wrongly convicted prisoners there are and how many guilty criminals are roaming free.

The Innocence Project is committed to reversing injustice by zealously representing prisoners that are reasonably believed to be innocent victims of systemic failures, utilizing volunteer lawyers and DNA testing (which is expensive and frequently not used by the prosecution or defense) toward the accomplishment of their mission.

Among the Innocence Project cases that go to DNA testing, the DNA proves the accused or convicted to be innocent about as often as it confirms their guilt. In a review of Innocence Project cases that went to DNA testing and were then closed over a five-year period, DNA testing proved innocence in about 43% of cases, confirmed the prosecution theory in about 42% of cases, and was inconclusive or not probative in about 15% of cases.

Furthermore, in more than 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement authorities identified the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that overturned the wrongful conviction, so the work of the Innocence Project has not only helped to exonerate victims who were wrongly accused, it has helped to apprehend and convict the real criminals.

Since the start of the Innocence Project, there have been 325 post-conviction DNA-based exonerations in the U.S. A total of 20 exonerated prisoners were serving time on Death Row before their release, another 16 were charged with capital crimes with life or near-life sentences, and the true perpetrators or DNA-linked suspects were correctly identified in 159 of these cases.

What is most striking to me is that the wrongly accused have served an average of more than 13 years in prison before winning their freedom ONLY because of the efforts of volunteer lawyers. I have interviewed some of the men who have been victims of injustice, and I have been amazed at how consistently they have been far more grateful to the lawyers who won their freedom than bitter toward the failures of the system. In fact, they show very little or no diminishment in their zest for life and for freedom, and their love for others.

The 325th man to be exonerated on Dec. 18 of this year was Rickey Dale Wyatt, who served 31 years for a rape he did not commit, and who was, as shown in this photo by the Innocence Project, clearly overjoyed with his ultimate vindication. God bless the lawyers and staff who worked for and obtained justice for this man, and kudos to the Innocence Project for more than two decades of legal excellence benefiting 325 innocent human beings !



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