Innocence Project

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The Innocence Project
Logo of The Innocence Project.gif
Formation1992;29 years ago (1992)
Founded at
Type Nonprofit organization
32-0077563 [1]
Legal status 501(c)(3) [2]
  • Exoneration
  • Justice reform
"The Innocence Project's mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment." [3]
Headquarters40 Worth Street, Suite 701
New York, NY 10013
United States
Executive Director
Christina Swarns [4]
Jack Taylor [5]
Affiliations The Innocence Network
Revenue (2018)
$13,426,018 [6]
Expenses (2018)$13,608,849 [6]
Endowment $21,620,304 (2018) [6]
Employees (2017)
88 [6]
Volunteers (2017)
17 [6]

The Innocence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating individuals who have been wrongly convicted, through the use of DNA testing and working to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. [7] The group cites various studies estimating that in the United States, between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners are innocent. [8] The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Scheck and Neufeld gained national attention in the mid-1990s as part of the "Dream Team" of lawyers who formed part of the defense in the O. J. Simpson murder case.


As at February 25, 2021, the Innocence Project has successfully overturned 375 convictions through DNA-based exonerations. [9] In 2021, Innocence Project received the biennial Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty by Cato Institute, awarded in recognition and gratitude for its work to ensure liberty and justice for all. [10]


The Innocence Project was established in the wake of a study by the United States Department of Justice and United States Senate, in conjunction with the Jewish Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which claimed that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70% of wrongful convictions. [11] The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Scheck and Neufeld as part of a law clinic at Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City. It became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization on January 28, 2003, [12] but it maintains institutional connections with Cardozo. [13] From 2004 until 2020 the executive director of the Innocence Project was Madeline deLone. [14] In Sept. 8, 2020 Christina Swarns succeeded deLone as the executive director. [15]

The Innocence Project is the headquarters of the Innocence Network, a group of nearly 70 independent innocence organizations worldwide. One such example exists in the Republic of Ireland where in 2009 a project was set up at Griffith College Dublin. [16]


The Innocence Project focuses on cases in which DNA evidence is available to be tested or retested. DNA testing is possible in 5–10% of criminal cases. [17] Other members of the Innocence Network also help to exonerate those in whose cases DNA testing is not possible.

In addition to working on behalf of those who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes throughout the United States, those working for the Innocence Project perform research and advocacy related to the causes of wrongful convictions.

Some of the Innocence Project's successes have resulted in releasing people from death row. The successes of the project have fueled American opposition to the death penalty and have likely been a factor in the decision by some American states to institute moratoria on criminal executions. [18]

In District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009), US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that post-conviction challenge "poses questions to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality better left to elected officials than federal judges." In the opinion, another justice wrote that forensic science has "serious deficiencies". Roberts also said that post-conviction DNA testing risks "unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice." Law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote: "It might lead to a reasonably accurate one." [19]

Overturned convictions

As of November 2019, 367 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 21 of whom had been sentenced to death. [9] Almost all (99%) of the wrongful convictions were males, [20] with minority groups constituting approximately 70% (61% African American and 8% Latino). [9] The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,579 convicted defendants who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence from January 1, 1989, through April 12, 2015. [21] According to a study published in 2014, more than 4% of persons overall sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 are probably innocent. [22] The following are examples of notable exonerations:


The Innocence Project originated in New York City but accepts cases from any part of the United States. The majority of clients helped are of low socio-economic status and have used all possible legal options for justice. Many clients hope that DNA evidence will prove their innocence, as the emergence of DNA testing allows those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes to challenge their cases. The Innocence Project also works with the local, state and federal levels of law enforcement, legislators, and other programs to prevent further wrongful convictions. [7]

About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases. [29]

All potential clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not they are likely to be innocent. If they pass the process, the Innocence Project takes up their case. In almost half of the cases that the Innocence Project takes on, the clients' guilt is reconfirmed by DNA testing. Of all the cases taken on by the Innocence Project, about 43% of clients were proven innocent, 42% were confirmed guilty, and evidence was inconclusive and not probative in 15% of cases. In about 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement officials identified the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that led to an exoneration. [30]


The Innocence Project, as of June 2018, receives 55% of its funding from individual contributions, 16% from foundations, 16% from events, 8% from investments, and the remainder from corporations, Yeshiva University, and other sources. [31]

Innocence Network

The Innocence Project is a founder of the Innocence Network, an organization of law and journalism schools, and public defense offices that collaborate to help convicted felons prove their innocence. [7] 46 American states along with several other countries are a part of the network. In 2010, 29 people were exonerated worldwide from the work of the members of this organization. [32]

The Innocence Network brings together a growing number of innocence organizations from across the United States, as well as including members from other English-speaking common law countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. [33]

In South Africa, the Wits Justice Project investigates South African incarcerations. In partnership with the Wits Law Clinic, the Julia Mashele Trust, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the US Innocence Project, and the Justice Project investigate individual cases of prisoners wrongly convicted or awaiting trial. [34]

Causes of wrongful conviction

Wrongful convictions are a common occurrence with various causes that land innocent defendants in prison. Most common are false eyewitness accounts, where the accused are incorrectly identified by viewers of a crime. This accounts for 69%, [35] of the exonerations that took place due to the Innocence Project, further proving that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. This measure has proven to be inaccurate in many police line ups, as there is much bias, and suspects can be singled out based on their appearance and the frequency that they are placed in front of witnesses. Additionally, 52%, [36] of the Innocence Project cases’ wrongful convictions have resulted from the misapplication of forensic science. These include faulty hair comparisons, arson artifacts, and comparative bullet lead analysis. These methods of evidence collection evolve as new technology arises, but said technology can take decades to create, making cases based on the faulty forensic science cases difficult to overturn. In 26%, [37] of DNA exoneration cases--and more than double that number in homicide cases--innocent people were coerced into making false confessions. Many of these false confessors went on to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit (usually to avoid a harsher sentence or even the death penalty). Currently, there is a racial aspect of this issue where many black people are discriminated against during both their trial and while in jail. The hashtag #blackbehindbars has allowed those exonerated after false confessions to share their stories and the injustice they faced due to the failure of the government justice system. Another large contribution of wrongful convictions is fabricated testimonies that falsely incriminate defendants. The Innocence Project has found that 17%, [38] of its cases have been caused by false testimonies, allowing the person who gave the testimony a shorter or better sentence while the accused face harsher repercussions. Many of these stories are given by inmates who have been given an incentive to falsely testify against certain people with rewards such as reduction of their sentences or leniency in prison.




Stage productions


See also

Other people exonerated who were defended by Innocence Project efforts


  1. "Innocence Project". CharityWatch . Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  2. "Innocence Project Inc." Tax Exempt Organization Search. Internal Revenue Search. Retrieved December 7, 2019.
  3. "About – Innocence Project". Innocence Project. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  4. "". Innocence Project. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
  5. "". Innocence Project. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 "Form 990: Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax". Innocence Project. Internal Revenue Service. June 30, 2018.
  7. 1 2 3 "About Us". Innocence Project. Retrieved April 12, 2015.
  8. "How many innocent people are there in prison?". Innocence Project. Archived from the original on 10 November 2014. Retrieved 13 September 2018.
  9. 1 2 3 "DNA Exonerations in the United States". Innocence Project. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  10. "Cato Institute Awards 2021 Milton Friedman Prize to the Innocence Project". 2021. Retrieved July 16, 2021.
  11. "Facts about Wrongful Convictions >>Mistaken Eyewitness Identifications". Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Archived from the original on August 22, 2008. Retrieved December 12, 2006.
  12. "The Innocence Project, Inc." New York State Division of Corporations: Entity Information. Retrieved December 10, 2019.
  13. "Frequently Asked Questions". Innocence Project. Archived from the original on December 28, 2007. Retrieved December 9, 2011.
  14. "Staff Directory". The Innocence Project.
  15. "Innocence Project announces new executive director". Innocence Project. 2020-04-27. Retrieved 2021-02-15.
  16. "The Irish Innocence Project Symposium: An International Exploration of Wrongful Conviction 80 University of Cincinnati Law Review 2011-2012". Retrieved 2017-11-14.
  17. "The Innocence Project". New York: Innocence Project. 2012. Archived from the original on 2010-10-15. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
  18. Rosenthal, Brian (2011). "Death Penalty Moratoria". Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. Archived from the original on 2011-03-14. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  19. Lundin, Leigh (June 28, 2009). "Dark Justice". Capital Punishment. Criminal Brief.
  20. "Female DNA Exonerees Represent Only a Few of the Women Who Have Been Wrongfully Convicted Nationwide". The Innocence Project. Archived from the original on 2012-04-05. Retrieved January 3, 2012.
  21. "The National Registry of Exonerations". Michigan Law.
  22. "More than 4% of death row inmates wrongly convicted, study says". Los Angeles Times.
  23. "Steven Avery". The Innocence Project.
  24. Kertscher, Tom (March 19, 2007). "Avery found guilty of killing woman". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Archived from the original on January 18, 2016. Retrieved January 15, 2016.
  25. Zerwick, Phoebe (February 6, 2004). "Hunt exonerated". Winston Salem Journal. Archived from the original on April 29, 2013. Retrieved June 2, 2013.
  26. Zerwick, Phoebe (2003) "Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt" Journal Now
  27. James Tillman – 17 Years in Prison: Innocent Archived 2010-06-27 at the Wayback Machine Innocence Project
  28. Harris, Dan; Yu, Katie; Effron, Lauren (April 18, 2015). "Exonerated Death Row Inmate Meets the Former Prosecutor Who Put Him There". Nightline. ABC. Retrieved April 18, 2015.
  29. "How many people write to you each year?". The Innocence Project. Archived from the original on 2012-06-11. Retrieved 2012-06-06.
  30. "How often do DNA tests prove innocence in your cases? Does testing ever prove guilt? — The Innocence Project". Archived from the original on 2015-01-05. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
  31. "Annual Report 2018" (PDF). The Innocence Project.
  32. "The Innocence Network". The Innocence Network. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  33. "Mission Statement". Innocence Network. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
  34. Gordin, Jeremy (August 2009). "The Justice Project". Witwatersrand, SA: Wits Journalism Programme. Retrieved 2011-01-04.
  35. "How Eyewitness Misidentification Can Send Innocent People to Prison". The Innocence Project.
  36. "Overturning Wrongful Convictions Involving Misapplied Forensics". The Innocence Project.
  37. "#BlackBehindBars". The Innocence Project.
  38. "Informing injustice: The disturbing use of jailhouse informants". The Innocence Project.
  39. Smallman, Etan (April 23, 2007). "The Innocence Squad". The Times . Retrieved July 18, 2009.
  40. "Scheck on "The Good Wife"". The Innocence Project Blog. Archived from the original on August 3, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2012.

Related Research Articles

A miscarriage of justice, also known as a wrongful conviction, occurs when a person is convicted and punished for a crime that he or she did not actually commit. It can occur in both criminal and civil proceedings, which includes removal proceedings. The main contributing factors are eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensic analysis, false confessions by vulnerable suspects, perjury and lies told by witnesses, misconduct by police, prosecutors or judges and inadequate defence strategies put forward by the defendant's legal team.

Peter Neufeld American lawyer

Peter J. Neufeld is an American lawyer, cofounder, with Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project, and a founding partner in the civil rights law firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin. Starting from his earliest years as an attorney representing clients at New York's Legal Aid Society, and teaching trial advocacy at Fordham School of Law from 1988–1991, he has focused on civil rights and the intersection of science and criminal justice.

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth is a former Maryland waterman and the first American sentenced to death to be exonerated post-conviction by DNA testing.

<i>The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town</i>

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town is a 2006 true crime book by John Grisham, his only nonfiction title as of 2020. The book tells the story of Ronald 'Ron' Keith Williamson of Ada, Oklahoma, a former minor league baseball player who was wrongly convicted in 1988 of the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter in Ada and was sentenced to death. After serving 11 years on death row, he was exonerated by DNA evidence and other material introduced by the Innocence Project and was released in 1999.

Exoneration occurs when the conviction for a crime is reversed, either through demonstration of innocence, a flaw in the conviction, or otherwise. Attempts to exonerate convicts are particularly controversial in death penalty cases, especially where new evidence is put forth after the execution has taken place. The transitive verb, "to exonerate" can also mean to informally absolve one from blame.

This is a list of notable overturned convictions in the United States.

Earl Washington Jr. is a former Virginia death-row inmate, who was fully exonerated of murder charges against him in 2000. He had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 for the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lyn Williams in Culpeper, Virginia. Washington has an IQ estimated at 69, which classifies him as intellectually disabled. He was coerced into confessing to the crime when arrested on an unrelated charge a year later. He narrowly escaped being executed in 1985 and 1994.

Centurion is a non-profit organization located in Princeton, New Jersey, with a mission to exonerate innocent individuals who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to life sentences or death.

The innocent prisoner's dilemma, or parole deal, is a detrimental effect of a legal system in which admission of guilt can result in reduced sentences or early parole. When an innocent person is wrongly convicted of a crime, legal systems which need the individual to admit guilt — as, for example, a prerequisite step leading to parole — punish an innocent person for their integrity, and reward a person lacking in integrity. There have been cases where innocent prisoners were given the choice between freedom, in exchange for claiming guilt, and remaining imprisoned and telling the truth. Individuals have died in prison rather than admit to crimes that they did not commit.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society. The Registry was co-founded in 2012 with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to provide detailed information about known exonerations in the United States since 1989. As of February 6, 2020, the Registry has 2,551 known exonerations in the United States since 1989. The National Registry does not include more than 1,800 defendants cleared in 15 large-scale police scandals that came to light between 1989 and March 7, 2017, in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.

The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) is a legal based organization at the Santa Clara University School of Law in Santa Clara, California. The organization revisits previous convictions of individuals who are believed to be innocent of their crimes. They are a non-profit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law, which looks to promote a more fair, effective and compassionate criminal justice system. The NCIP attempts to protect the rights of all parties involved so that they too may have an adequate trial. NCIP is a member of the national Innocence Project network of similar organizations. The NCIP was created in 2001 by Kathleen "Cookie" Ridolfi and Linda Starr, during this time new legislation in California had permitted convicted inmates to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence.

The Illinois Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Project network, is a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

California Innocence Project American legal non-profit founded 1999

The California Innocence Project is a non-profit based at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California, United States, which provides pro bono legal services to individuals who maintain their factual innocence of crime(s) for which they have been convicted. It is an independent chapter of the Innocence Project. Its mission is to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA and other evidences.

The Nebraska Innocence Project was a member organization Nebraska-based chapter of a U.S non-profit organization called the Innocence Project, located in Omaha, Nebraska. In 2019, the Nebraska Innocence Project folded into the Midwest Innocence Project. The Midwest Innocence Project's mission is to educate about, advocate for, and obtain and support the exoneration and release of wrongfully convicted people in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. The Nebraska chapter was founded in 2005 by a group of volunteers who were inspired by the work of Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocence Project in 1992. The Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) was founded in 2001 through the UMKC School of Law and is also part of the national Innocence Network.

Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) is a nonprofit legal organization that represents innocent prisoners serving life sentences in Louisiana and south Mississippi. It is the first organization in the Innocence Network to be established in the Deep South. Based in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, it is staffed by students, volunteers, and attorneys.

Michael Semanchik American wrongful conviction advocate

Michael "Mike" Semanchik is Managing Attorney at the California Innocence Project (CIP). As part of his work with CIP, he has been involved in many cases involving the exoneration of previously-convicted prisoners, working closely with the organization's director, Justin Brooks, and also preparing petitions for many of CIP's clients. After working at CIP while still a law student at California Western School of Law, following graduation in 2010 he became an investigator and then a staff attorney there.

Alissa Bjerkhoel American wrongful conviction advocate

Alissa Leanne Bjerkhoel is an American litigation coordinator at the California Innocence Project (CIP), a nonprofit, in-house law school clinic that investigates and litigates cases of factual innocence while training law students to advocate for justice. A native of Truckee, California, Bjerkhoel, who graduated from California Western School of Law (CWSL), which houses the Project, has been an attorney with CIP since passing her bar exam in 2008. Bjerkhoel has served as counsel for CIP on numerous criminal cases, and achieved the legal exoneration of a number of convicted prisoners. Among the high-profile exonerations she has worked on are those of Brian Banks, Timothy Atkins, Reggie Cole, Daniel Larsen Uriah Courtney, Guy Miles, William Richards and Kim Long.

Blind Injustice is a nonfiction book by lawyer Mark Godsey. Godsey is the co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), which seeks to exonerate and overturn the convictions of people who have been wrongfully convicted. Drawing on Godsey's experience as a prosecutor for the Southern District of New York prior to his work at OIP, the book examines how the culture of the justice system is complicit in wrongful convictions. It was published in 2017 by the University of California Press.

Bill Clutter American wrongful conviction advocate

Bill Clutter is an American private investigator, wrongful conviction advocate, and author. He is the co-founder of the Illinois Innocence Project and founder of the national wrongful conviction organization Investigating Innocence. His work on the Donaldson v. Central Illinois Public Service Company case led him to write the book Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children, which is the story of an epidemic of neuroblastoma in Taylorville, IL caused by exposure to coal tar.