Not many wrongfully convicted people will one day play professional football. In fact, so far, just one Innocence Project client, exonerated after wrongful conviction and imprisonment, has been drafted by the National Football League. Brian Banks’s story is inspiring and higher-profile than most, yet, as the 2013 Innocence Network Conference convened last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, attendees were reminded that every exoneration is an inspiring story of determination and indomitable human spirit demonstrated by an unguaranteed quest for freedom and true justice, however delayed.
Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, Co-Founders and Co-Directors of the Innocence Project, opened the conference at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, April 19. The two-day event, packed with a rich offering of programs and breakout sessions, emphasized a track for the special challenges of the attending exonerees. Many, struggling to re-establish lives after long incarceration, attended the conference only with the help of supporting foundations.
As the conference convened, the Innocence Project was reporting 306 exonerations, most based on DNA, since 1989. The National Registry of Exonerations, established in March of 2012, was reporting 1,100 exonerations, which includes those proven by DNA as well as other means of proof.
Of the 27 persons exonerated by Innocence Network clinics in the last year, 9 relied on DNA and 18 utilized other proof of innocence. Two were arson cases as forensic testimony once widely used at trial is now viewed as a false indicator of intentional fire setting.
The diverse gathering—exonerees, crime victims, lawyers, police, investigators, journalists, academics, scientists, and researchers—came together from around the world with the common goals of correcting miscarriages of justice and reducing the occurrence of convicting the innocent. The Network, now consisting of 53 U.S. members (legal clinics usually associated with a law school) and 9 non-U.S. clinics, expects rapid growth; it has been a banner year for emerging innocence efforts throughout the world.
In an international session led by Justin Brooks and Mark Godsey, Directors of Innocence Projects in California and Ohio respectively, Jason Puracal and his sister, Janis, spoke emotionally about Jason’s wrongful imprisonment in Nicaragua for two years and the global effort to secure his freedom. Attendees from locations as diverse as Taiwan, Israel, China, Norway, Argentina, South Africa, and Ireland, among others, also shared updates on the Innocence movement in their countries.
Attendees learned of advances in the work of establishing best practices in U.S. criminal justice—in eyewitness procedures, post-conviction DNA testing, and exoneree compensation—through state legislation or via state supreme courts. At the U.S. federal level, it was noted that the President’s budget included funding for basic applied research for the forensic sciences, a first step toward addressing concerns detailed by a 2009 report by the National Research Council, which alerted the nation to many shortcomings in the reliability of the forensic sciences and their use in the courtroom.
Keynote speaker Darrel Stephens, Executive Director of Major City Chiefs Association and former Charlotte Police Chief, admitted that he was 30 years into his career before his focus shifted to wrongful conviction. He established a record of leadership among police and police organizations. In discussing the adoption of videotaped interrogations by homicide detectives in Charlotte, he noted that detectives embraced the initiative to demonstrate that the content of their interrogations was professional, to provide important documentation for trial, and to improve training. Noting that 18 states now require recorded interrogations, Stephens encouraged the Innocence Network to continue to build relationships to achieve changes that reduce miscarriages. He said that he understands the shortcomings of the criminal justice system and, addressing the exonerees, Stephens said that he “very much regrets that you have been victims of them.” He pledged, “I will do what I can to reduce wrongful convictions.”
The annual Champion of Justice Award was presented to William G. Brooks III, a 35-year police veteran who is Chief of the Norwood, Massachusetts Police Department. Brooks has partnered with the Innocence Project to advocate best practices in eyewitness identification and other innocence-related reforms. He has personally trained thousands in law enforcement on eyewitness best practice procedures.
Investigative reporter, Spencer S. Hsu—whose many reports for The Washington Post highlighted the weaknesses of forensic science and the failure of the FBI to take adequate steps to inform defendants that the hair analysis used in their trial may have been flawed—received the annual journalism award. His work helped prompt the FBI to commit to a review, with the assistance of the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, of thousands of state and federal cases that relied on FBI hair analysis.
The opening morning session concluded with an emotional and inspiring conference kickoff tradition: The video introduction of each of the 27 persons exonerated in the past year, followed by the introduction of each attending exoneree from prior years. More than 100 in all came forward to join one another before the attendees at the sold-out conference. The exonerees were welcomed in celebration and as heroes by a crowd that knows only too well how hard-earned each correction of justice is.
The conference offered a rich menu of presentations by more than 85 legal and police experts, academics, researchers, exonerees, crime victims, and others committed to improving criminal justice. Valuable networking occurred in the short breaks and social time following Friday’s full day of programming.
By all accounts, the conference delivered on high expectations. Attendees embraced new friends as they departed. Inspired and better-informed, most returned to lives and work challenged by wrongful conviction and ongoing efforts to improve criminal justice in the United States and around the globe.