January 7, 2015
DNA, the ticket used to protect the innocent
Some would argue that before the creation of the Innocence Project, people who were not guilty of crimes were often put behind bars. And statistics suggest they may be right. Founded in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, by Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck, the goal of the Innocence Project (the Project) has been to assist prisoners through the testing of DNA. And to date, more than 330 people have been exonerated by this testing.
Neufeld, an attorney, presented a lecture at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in October, a fitting location for a discussion on the importance of DNA testing, considering that there has been a genetics research program there since 1904. CSHL has steadfastly pioneered DNA research ever since. The former CSHL director, James Watson, who also attended Neufeld’s lecture, created the DNA Learning Center in 1988, the first science center devoted entirely to educating the public about genetics. Watson, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.
The purpose of Neufeld’s lecture was to celebrate the 125th anniversary of CSHL. It was part of a series of lectures focused on the relationships between science and society.
“We are able to exonerate the innocent with DNA testing but also, often, identify the perpetrator of the crime,” Neufeld explained. “It was very important to us at the Project to deconstruct the 330 cases [which the Project later overturned]. Then we worked with scientists to improve what police were gathering to make the evidence more reliable.”
The Project, a national litigation and public policy organization, has been dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
“We are trying to change the behavior of the people working in the forensic labs, the police and the district attorney’s office,” Neufeld said. “We don’t look at if the person arrested has an eyewitness, or if they’ve signed a confession. All we look at is the biology.”