Looking Back: Careers in the Innocence Movement

By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

With increasing regularity, cases of people wrongfully convicted and subsequently cleared come to light. They justifiably produce feelings of shock and outrage about wrongdoing by law enforcement. They also produce feelings of sadness and relief that manifest injustice was overturned.

There are many ways to contribute to the innocence movement. Hopefully, some reading this article will consider pursuing such a career.

Criminal defense lawyers, first and foremost, exonerate the wrongfully convicted, and civil lawyers then seek compensation for these victims. My primary attorney, Nick Brustin, is this kind of lawyer. Paralegals also play an important role in the process by helping lawyers who file legal papers, present evidence and conduct hearings in wrongful conviction cases.

Psychologists are vital to the movement. They counsel the wrongfully convicted damaged by years lost in prison for someone else’s crime. They also provide expert testimony about false confessions.

Dr. Matthew Johnson, a false confession expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is this kind of psychologist. False confession experiments by Saul Kassin, professor of psychology at Williams College, led to a greater understanding of why and how such confessions occur. Several years ago, Dr. Kassin testified as an expert witness about false confessions in the John Kogut case. His testimony led to Kogut’s acquittal on retrial. DNA proved that Kogut and his co-defendants were innocent.

Likewise, psychological research and experiments have generated a greater understanding of the factors involved in misidentification of perpetrators by eye witnesses. As a result, we now have improved methods and processes to make identifications more accurate.

Social workers play a key role in the innocence movement. They assist the exonerated in reconnecting with family, friends and community; help the freed prisoner tap into available public resources to integrate back into civil life; and help him adjust to the difficulties of day-to-day living.

Journalists are critical to the innocence movement. They raise public awareness of wrongful conviction cases and spur the public to become sensitized to this issue. Jessica Sanders directed the documentary “After Innocence,” which chronicled the difficulties wrongfully convicted men experience reintegrating back into society. The documentary won six awards.

The Innocence Network is a collective of groups dedicated to clearing the wrongfully convicted. The network hailed Mike Wagner and Peter Dutton who wrote a 14-part series in The Columbus Dispatch following a “yearlong review that uncovered deep flaws in Ohio’s system for post-conviction DNA testing. They learned that police and courts regularly destroy evidence, prosecutors routinely oppose DNA testing, and judges often dismiss inmate requests without a reason, though the law requires one.” Wagner and Dutton worked with the Ohio Innocence Project and “identified 30 cases of prisoners who might be exonerated through DNA testing. So far, two people have been exonerated through the project: Joseph Fears — who served 26 years in prison, and Robert McClendon who served 17 years.” The Columbus Dispatch series “also helped spark statewide legislative reforms in Ohio on access to DNA testing, eyewitness identification procedures, and other critical measures to improve the state’s criminal justice system.”

Peter Shellem posthumously won the network’s lifetime achievement award for his work as an investigative journalist who “almost singlehandedly exonerated five people in unrelated cases. They served a combined total of more than 68 years in prison. In each case, Shellem uncovered evidence of innocence that police, attorneys and courts had missed and spent years working to free people who were wrongfully convicted.”

Writing books is another way to aid the innocence movement. Noted potboiler/legal thriller writer, John Grisham, wrote The Innocent Man about the wrongful conviction and exoneration of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. This book did much to raise awareness of the issue, as has Jim Dwyer’s book, Actual Innocence, co-authored by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. It is a textbook about the systemic deficiencies that lead to wrongful convictions, and details real cases of wrongful conviction.

Public relations professionals also represent a vital arm of the innocence movement. Nonprofits dedicated to righting wrongful convictions need exposure. The Innocence Project, for example, has its own media department. Each exoneration represents an opportunity to educate the public and elected officials about wrongful convictions, and hopefully, this sensitizes them to the need for remedial legislation. Public relations experts issue press releases, coordinate press conferences, arrange media interviews, utilize social media, and generate other written materials invaluable to the innocence movement.

Development is critical to the innocence movement, too. All anti-wrongful conviction organizations need funds to carry out their mission. Knowledgeable fundraising professionals tap public grants, private foundations and wealthy individuals to support these groups.

Investigators are vital to the innocence movement. DNA is only available in 10-12% of all serious felony cases. Investigation corrected many injustices. For example, investigator Jerry Palace and others on his team were instrumental in uncovering information presented to Justice Rory Bellantoni who overturned Officer Richard DiGuglielmo’s wrongful conviction. Sadly, his conviction was recently reinstated by the appellate division. The matter is now before the court of Appeals in Albany.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, wrongful convictions can be avoided or corrected by conscientious law enforcement professionals. Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins created a conviction integrity unit which reviews old cases to ferret out possible cases of wrongful conviction. The Harris County District Attorney’s office has a similar unit. Numerous people have been exonerated by the Dallas program, and three by the Houston program, including the recently exonerated Michael Green who served twenty-seven years for a rape he did not commit.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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