Weissman Speakers Tackle Wrongful Conviction

Posted: March 15, 2010

Madeline deLone likes to project the photographs of exonerated prisoners on the screen behind her when she talks. It is their stories and their suffering that drive the work of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners and to identifying and righting endemic problems in the criminal justice system that send innocent people to jail.

The executive director of the Innocence Project since 2004, deLone came to campus March 10 with Betty Anne Waters, whose personal story of how she went to law school to fight for the release of her brother Kenneth is the subject of a major motion picture due to be in theaters later this year.

“Over 60 percent of the exonerated in America are African American. Over 70 percent people of color. All of them have parents or partners or children. All had families and friends,” deLone told the more than 100 people who attended a public lecture in Gamble Auditorium as part of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts series on Limits of the Law. Collectively, the people freed with the help of the Innocence Project have served more than 3,000 years behind bars.

The mission of the Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, goes beyond assisting in the defense of inmates whose innocence can be established through DNA testing, said DeLone. The organization, which has a staff of 50, is committed to learning the lessons of why our criminal justice system goes wrong with such regularity. It also advocates for reforms and works to educate the public.

Waters, who will be portrayed by two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank in a movie titled Betty Anne Waters, told the story of how her brother was arrested in 1982 for the murder of an elderly neighbor two years prior. He was convicted and served 18 years in prison in spite of the fact that he had a strong alibi and, as she discovered later, police all along had fingerprints from the crime scene that did not match his.

Waters, a high school dropout and single mother at the time, went to college and then law school at her brother’s urging in order to advocate for justice in his case. She came to the Innocence Project and worked with the organization for his release. In a dramatic turn of events, Waters discovered there existed blood evidence from the crime scene that could be used for DNA testing. With this, the Innocence Project was eventually able prove that someone other than Kenneth Waters was the perpetrator. It took two years of legal battles just to allow the DNA testing to go forward, said Waters, adding, “If it wasn’t for DNA, I don’t think my brother would have been released.”

The Innocence Project has received more than 30,000 requests from inmates claiming wrongful conviction in its 18-year history, according to deLone. It has won the release of 251 wrongfully convicted inmates to date and currently has about as many active cases.

“In about a third of the cases we take on, the DNA evidence has been lost or destroyed, so one can never prove the claim,” said deLone. “So people in general then stay inside with no hope of release.”

The talk was the second in a series of three public lectures in the Weissman Center’s spring series. The last, featuring New Yorker magazine staff writer Jane Mayer speaking on "Is Liberty the Price of Security?" is scheduled for April 22.

Related Links:

Limits of the Law Lecture Series

Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts

Innocence Project