The Innocence Project is a legal clinic at Benjamin Cardozo Law School in New York. It was founded in 1992, by lawyers Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, to represent prisoners who could be proved, by DNA testing, innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted and for which they were serving, or had served, time in prison. Of the first 194 prisoners exonerated by the Project, 14 had been on death row, sentenced to be executed, and the average length of time the 194 had been wrongly incarcerated was 12 years.
The weekly U.S. news magazine Time reported in its issue dated April 23, 2007, that from its first reversal of a conviction in 1989 to its 198th in April 2007, the Innocence Project had exonerated current or former prisoners in 32 states. In 72 of those cases, the DNA evidence not only cleared the wrongly convicted person but also identified the real perpetrator. Time reported in its June 18, 2007, issue that the first 202 convicts freed by the Innocence Project had served a total of 2,496 years in prison and estimated that 45% of them had been compensated by the governments that wrongly convicted them, in amounts from $25,000 to $12.2 million.
In the field of law, words or phrases with specific legal meanings beyond their definitions in ordinary usage are called "words of art" or "terms of art." Here are some of those meanings, under U.S. law, for such terms in this article:
- To be "innocent" of a crime means not to have committed it, as opposed to "guilty," which means that person did commit that criminal offense at that time and place. Because innocence/guilt is a binary matter of fact (that may depend on such elusive factors as what a person was thinking at a particular moment), in the real world it is often impossible even to ascertain which is true, much less to prove it legally. In the U.S., if that factual question is decided at a jury trial, the verdict is either "guilty" or "not guilty," and "not guilty" means "not proven guilty" -- it does NOT mean "innocent."
- To be "exonerated" (or "cleared") of an imputation of criminal activity means to have it removed as if it never existed. For example: If a person is suspected of having committed a certain criminal offense, to be "exonerated" means not to be suspected anymore. If a person is formally accused of a criminal offense (by having charges filed by a governmental agent, such as a district attorney, with a court), to be "exonerated" means to have that formal accusation withdrawn because it was factually wrong (NOT because there was some technical defect, such as being unable to adduce sufficient evidence to prove it, which is why a person may be acquitted (that is, found "not guilty") of a murder charge at a criminal trial and then be held liable, in a civil trial, to pay money damages for the killing). If a person has been convicted of a criminal offense, to be "exonerated" means not only to have the formal adjudication of guilt undone but to have the underlying accusation itself withdrawn for having been factually wrong, too.
- Merely being released from incarceration because the criminal conviction was reversed is not equivalent to either being "exonerated" or being "proved innocent": If a criminal conviction is invalidated, the usual result is that the person is still formally accused of the crime and, therefore, entitled to a new trial on those charges. The court in which the charges are pending may grant bail, and the person may then be released from custody until the charges are resolved, whether by a new trial or by having the charges dismissed (by the court) or withdrawn (by the prosecuting authority).
Actual innocence is neither necessary nor sufficient to get a conviction overturned: Once a person has been convicted, the only legal basis for challenging the conviction is that (1) there was some legal mistake in the process leading to it, and (2) if not for that legal mistake, the person should have been acquitted. So just proving that the person was factually innocent of the crime, by itself, is not enough, but proving someone bribed the judge or jury to convict, for example, may be enough, without proving the person was innocent.
New evidence is sometimes sufficient to get a conviction overturned: Evidence that could have been introduced at trial, but was not, is not a legal basis for getting the conviction invalidated (even if it unequivocally proves the accused person was innocent of the crime), but evidence that became available only after the conviction is a legal basis for an application to invalidate the conviction: If the court decides the new evidence should have led to an acquittal at trial, it will reverse the conviction, reinstate the charges, and order a new trial on them. Sometimes, however, the new evidence actually proves the convicted person was innocent and in a more perfect world would not even have been charged, and then the court will reverse the conviction and dismiss the charges, and that is an "exoneration."
DNA is often "new evidence": The results of DNA analyses are often "new evidence," within the applicable legal definitions, because: (1) the technology has developed since the time of the trial, making new kinds of tests possible; and/or (2) the defendant could not afford to pay for DNA analyses, and the prosecution chose not to have them performed before the trial.
- Webpage @ innocenceproject.org