In 1992, two lawyers named Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck were wrestling with a growing problem in the American justice system: the number of people who were convicted on false eyewitness testimony.
Too often, in the heat and panic of the moment, people who witness crimes incorrectly remember certain details and end up convicting the wrong person.
One study found that over 70% of wrongful convictions in the US can be at least partly blamed on incorrect eyewitness testimony.
Scheck and Neufeld’s solution was to found the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group that uses sound science like DNA testing to help exonerate innocent people and get them back to their homes and families.
Since then, they’ve helped secure the release of 343 innocent people, 20 of whom were on death row. They’ve also helped bring the right people to justice, using their expertise to land more than 147 real perps behind bars.
Incorrect eyewitness testimony isn’t the only reason innocent people wind up in jail. According to the Innocence Project, about half the cases they’ve gotten involved in also involve bad forensic science and outdated methods of proving someone’s guilt.
Even more concerning, the group says about a quarter of cases they’ve studied involve innocent people who actually plead guilty because they were coerced into it.
To help those people and others, the Innocence Project launched what’s called the Innocence Network, a collective of law schools, journalism schools, and public defenders that team up to help get wrongfully convicted felons out of jail.
They’re working in 26 states and even overseas, in countries like Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK.
But the group isn’t interested in only temporary solutions, but also real, systemic change.
They have a whole policy team that works with everyone from local leaders to Congress, helping pass laws that make it harder to convict the wrong person and easier to get innocent people out of jail.
A version of this article was originally published in Issue 01 of the Goodnewspaper in July 2017.