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When a woman gets up on Oprah’s show and says, “If you’re innocent, write to Larry Marshall,” chances are that people will. Lawrence Marshall is a law professor and the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., one of the granddaddies of the burgeoning innocence project industry. Fueled by the success of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law, co-directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, along with Medill School of Journalism professor David Protess, have been hitting the academic pavement to pull law schools, journalism schools, and lawyers into the Innocence Project network. The aim is to share resources to review the thousands of letters that flow in from inmates claiming wrongful convictions. So far, there are more than 25 such programs throughout the country. Protess wants the programs to work closely together: “I can foresee a case where we would hit the streets for evidence, and Barry would pursue the scientific angle.” Despite the expanding network, it’s impossible to keep pace with the requests. At Cardozo, more than 12,000 letters pour in annually, and only 10 to 15 of those will be investigated. The Innocence Project at Northwestern is pursuing seven cases this year, all of which were referred by Cardozo. “If we didn’t exist today, Cardozo would have to do it,” says Northwestern’s Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. According to Neufeld, of all the cases selected by the program where new biological evidence has been found, 50 percent of prosecutors will consent to testing; the other half will fight it. On average a case will take four to five years. (DNA post-conviction tests, most developed in coordination with the Innocence Project group, have helped free more than 80 inmates — at least 10 of whom were on death row.) In an effort to bring more law schools into the fold, in December, Northwestern held its first annual conference in which 70 law professors were instructed on how to launch an Innocence Project. “We’re getting calls from law schools that I haven’t even heard of that want to set up their own Innocence Project,” says Christopher Adams, the death penalty resource counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Present at the conference was Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, a law professor and director of the four-month-old Innocence Project at California’s Santa Clara University School of Law. She says her school’s program has already received more than 200 letters. However, much of the Santa Clara project’s time has been spent figuring out ways to keep the program funded: “We’re operating on a shoestring budget.” How prepared is the justice system for a growing number of innocence claims? Some prosecutors worry about how to set DNA testing priorities. “Evidence collection of a current crime should not have to take a backseat to the person seeking post-trial conviction testing, but it does happen when you’re dealing with limited DNA testing resources,” says Matthew Redle, a Sheridan, Wyo., prosecutor and co-chair of the DNA subcommittee for the National District Attorneys Association. Prosecutors also point out the emotional toll that’s extracted from victims and families when a case is reopened. “We welcome the Innocence Projects as long as they filter out clearly false claims,” says St. Paul, Minn., prosecutor and DNA subcommittee co-chair Susan Gaertner. “But finality is important for victims, and if someone is really guilty, we want to make sure that the family doesn’t have to relive the hell.” The success of the Innocence Projects has prompted some prosecutors to revisit their own conviction records. San Diego County district attorney Paul Pfingst has instituted the DNA Project, in which a team of law students systematically examine all criminal convictions prior to 1993, when DNA testing was first used in San Diego. Thus far, 200 of the 500 case files have been reviewed. According to George “Woody” Clark, the co-director of the DNA project, three cases will be investigated further to determine whether they warrant DNA testing. Inspired by the growing ranks, Northwestern’s Warden envisions the Innocence Project Network becoming “the largest network of pro bono lawyers and students across the nation.” For those wrongfully behind bars, the sooner the better.

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