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The New York-based Innocence Project, begun on a shoestring in 1992, settled into much-needed larger quarters last week — and pronounced plans to get more involved in public policy. “We have to become a think tank of criminal justice reform,” says Barry Scheck, a professor and director of clinical legal education at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Scheck established the Innocence Project with Peter Neufeld. Since 1988, the two New York criminal defense lawyers have pioneered the use of DNA evidence in post-conviction proceedings. The Innocence Project was at first underwritten by Cardozo and staffed with eager student researchers. The project is now a 501(c)(3) corporation. To date, the group claims to have exonerated 140 convicts, including death row inmates. “Every time we got an exoneration, we realized it became part of an important wedge to generate reform,” says Neufeld. “We would be remiss if we didn’t start expanding the policy component of the project by taking on more people to work with police, legislators, and state supreme court justices.” During the past few years, the Innocence Project’s core of five staff attorneys and six support personnel began looking into fundamental problems of traditional police lineups, faulty eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, shabby defense counsel, and shoddy forensic science. All this while housed in a crowded but rent-free suite of offices at Cardozo. With new space at 100 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan — and a new business structure that retains association with Cardozo students and funding — the project will double within the next 18 months, says Scheck, growing to about 25 staffers and an annual budget of $1 million. Moving and restructuring was crucial, according to Executive Director Nina Morrison, who will return to litigating cases once she hires her replacement and completes a contractual agreement with Cardozo. At the law school, Morrison says, “We had inmate mail standing in bins in the aisles and exoneration files spilling out of the file room. We knew we had to move. We’re literally in a race against time because we deal with DNA evidence that could be lost or destroyed at any moment. “It’s an enormous responsibility,” she adds. “We have 4,000 letters [from inmates requesting representation], and we’re committed to reviewing every one of them.” Says Scheck: “We’re a victim of our own success. The issues we’ve raised as defense lawyers can be appropriately reframed as good law enforcement issues. Every time an innocent person is arrested, the bad guy goes free.” For Neufeld, the move brought back memories of 38 years ago, when he worked as a high school volunteer at 100 Fifth Ave., at that time the headquarters of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Among the moving day helpers was John Restivo, the project’s most recent exoneree and the son of a retired police officer. Restivo, 45, was locked up in a New York state prison at age 25, convicted of raping and murdering a teen-age girl on Long Island. In June, a state trial judge overturned the conviction on the basis of DNA evidence. Like fellow inmates, Restivo says, he pressed his case over the years, pro se. “Preparing papers inside the penitentiary doesn’t kick it,” he says. “Finally, somebody was convinced that a mistake had been made. These people at the project, they’re amazing. They’re the cream of the crop.” Thomas Adcock is a reporter at the New York Law Journal, an American Lawyer Media daily newspaper, where this article first appeared.

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