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The Innocence Project, begun on a shoestring in 1992, settled into much-needed larger quarters at the end of December, moving four blocks uptown from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. With the move, the program established by defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld means to launch a whole new phase of existence. “We have to become a think tank of criminal justice reform,” said Scheck, a professor and director of clinical legal education at Cardozo. Since 1988, Scheck and Neufeld have been pioneers in the use of DNA evidence in post-conviction proceedings. When their work first resulted in overturning a conviction, they won national media attention and an avalanche of mail from prisoners. The Innocence Project was born, underwritten by Cardozo and staffed with eager student researchers. The project is now a 501-C-3 corporation. With 140 exonerations to date, including those of death row inmates, “People are now seeing that it’s not just what criminal defense lawyers want, but what law enforcement wants.” “Every time we got an exoneration, we realized it became part of an important wedge to generate reform,” said 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.” Indeed, according to “Actual Innocence,” the book Scheck and Neufeld co-authored in 2000 with Jim Dwyer of The New York Times: “Beyond the vista of the wrongly convicted looms another phenomenon, barely noticed but of vast importance. Today, DNA tests are used before trial. Of the first 18,000 results at the FBI and other crime laboratories, at least 5,000 prime suspects were excluded before their cases were tried. … For this unseen legion of innocent suspects, only the genetic tests halted their forced march from wrongly accused to wrongfully convicted. How many other innocent people, charged with crimes that involve no biological evidence, were chained and led at gunpoint into prison?” During the past few years, the project’s core of five staff attorneys and six support personnel began looking into fundamental problems of traditional police line-ups, faulty eye-witness 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. — and a new business structure that retains association with Cardozo students and funding — the project will double within the next 18 months, said 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 contractural agreement with Cardozo. INMATE MAIL At the law school, she said, “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 added. “We have 4,000 letters [from inmates requesting representation], and we’re committed to reviewing every one of them.” Scheck said, “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. “We’re getting a lot of support from the law enforcement community, and from conservatives,” he said. With reference to their shared background as Legal Aid attorneys in the Bronx, Scheck said of himself and Neufeld, “We’re unusual messengers. “A lot of these reforms were in the works for years,” he said, “but everyone was demagoging. The exonerations have focused attention in a way that’s compelling. We now have the political space to have a good discussion.” For Neufeld, the move brought back memories of 38 years ago, when he worked as a high school volunteer at 100 Fifth Ave., then 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 Greenhaven Prison at age 25, convicted of raping and murdering a teenage girl in Long Island. In June, Nassau State Supreme Court Justice Victor M. Ort overturned the conviction on the basis of DNA evidence. Like fellow inmates, Restivo said, he pressed his case over the years, pro se. “Preparing papers inside the penitentiary doesn’t kick it,” he said. “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.”

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