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Innocence Project helps to reform our justice system

On August 19, 1989, police officer Mark MacPhail was murdered in Savannah, Georgia.

Twenty-two years later, what may have been an innocent man paid the price for his untimely death. 

The case against Troy Davis consisted mostly of eyewitness testimony, with a lack of DNA evidence to substantiate claims of guilt. Seven of the nine non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or changed their testimony and many have said that they were pressured by police into testifying against Troy Davis.                   (APPhoto/Atlanta Journal & Constitution)

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester “Red” Coles, a man who is the principle alternative suspect and against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine people signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles in the crime.

No one can claim to know for sure that Troy Davis was an innocent man and his death an injustice. But what this case demonstrates are the countless issues that exist within our criminal justice system and with the death penalty. 

Amnesty International is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organizations and has received a Nobel Peace Prize for its work. On its website, Amnesty International states that since 1973 over 130 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. In 2003 alone, 10 wrongfully convicted defendants were released from death row. 

In addition, the website states that in a 1990 report the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The report found that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. According to Amnesty International, in a 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law it was found that African American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. The Amnesty International website also stated that a January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African American.

These facts serve as proof that the death penalty is very arbitrary. A person’s life can rest on the words one person says in a testimony or the prejudices of the system and the key players in it. Amnesty International’s website lists several other factors contributing to the arbitrariness of the death penalty:

  • Almost all death row inmates could not afford their own attorney at trial. Court-appointed attorneys often lack the experience necessary for capital trials and are overworked and underpaid. In the most extreme cases, some have slept through parts of trials or have arrived under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Prosecutors seek the death penalty far more frequently when the victim of a homicide is white than when the victim is African-American or of another ethnic/racial origin.
  • Co-defendants charged with committing the same crime often receive different punishments, where one defendant may receive a death sentence while another receives prison time.
  • Approximately two percent of those convicted of crimes that make them eligible for the death penalty actually receive a death sentence.
  • Each prosecutor decides whether or not to seek the death penalty. Local politics, the location of the crime, plea bargaining, and pure chance affect the process and make it a lottery of who lives and who dies.
  • GEOGRAPHIC ARBITRARINESS: Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 80% of all executions have taken place in the South. The Northeast accounts for less than 2% of executions.

It is disturbing that determination of who gets to live or die is so subjective and can rely on external factors that should have no place in a case where someone’s life is on the line. There seem to be no measures taken to ensure against these subjective factors, or at least they have become so ingrained in the system that now there is no hope for removing them. Our criminal justice system makes mistakes, as can be seen through the many death row inmates who have later been found innocent. Unfortunately, it seems doubtful that there is any way to ensure that mistakes are never made. If this is true, then is the death penalty ever a viable option for punishment?

Amnesty International also states that the death penalty does little to help deter crime. According to the website, a September 2000 survey conducted by The New York Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rates in states with the death penalty has been 48 to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty.

Daniel Werst, member of the local branch of the International Socialist Organization, an organization that has held rallies for Troy Davis and made other efforts to protest his execution, believes there should be a greater focus on rehabilitation.

“We really don’t see any reason why life imprisonment including possibly the use of life without parole especially in really horrible cases (couldn’t be used),” Werst said. “There are multiple reasons that we have the criminal justice system and punishment in general and we don’t think that simple vengeance should be one of them.”


Combating these issues with our criminal justice system should become a priority and not just in cases where the death penalty is involved. Greater steps should be taken to ensure that innocent people are not paying for crimes they didn’t commit.

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system. As a non-profit legal clinic, law students work on the cases while being supervised by attorneys and clinic staff.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois in Springfield, is an affiliate of the Innocence Project that represents downstate Illinois inmates.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project has successfully exonerated three inmates during its first eight years.

Locally, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is also involved in the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project. Currently, 15 students are working on exoneration cases this semester, supervised by College of Law professor J. Steven Beckett.

The students draft pleadings and write briefs, and they can meet with clients, do investigations and talk with witnesses.

“They do all the things that a lawyer or a lawyer’s staff could do,” Beckett said. “So it’s kind of a clinical program but it’s not abstract; it’s real. They’re representing real people; they’re helping us represent real people with claims of innocence.”

Currently, law students supervised by Beckett are working on the Slover case, a case in which a family consisting of mother, father and son were convicted for the murder of the son’s former wife, Karyn Slover, on September 27, 1996. Prior to March 2001, defense investigators had interviewed witnesses who raised the likelihood that the actual murderer was someone else. The Slovers were convicted in 2002 and sentenced to 65 years in prison despite the lack of physical evidence or a coherent theory on how they could have committed the crime.

Students working on the project are seeking exonerations for the Slover family.

“That’s what I think is so unique about the program,” Beckett said. “Our students are actually doing post-conviction work on cases, which is something that they don’t learn about in any significant way in their courses, but it is a very real, very important part of our criminal justice system.”

On the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project’s website, it is stated that the project’s cases typically do not turn on DNA evidence. Instead, attorneys and students working on the cases look at factors such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, ineffective counsel, unreliable forensic evidence and misconduct by prosecutors and police.

Just days after the execution of Troy Davis, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project received a $249,000 grant from the Justice Department that will be used for cases that cannot be resolved through DNA testing, as was the case in Troy Davis’ case.

“We do non-DNA analyses and investigations; it’s just they’re going to be able to do more cases because of this recent grant,” Beckett said.


The Innocence Project and Downstate Illinois Innocence Project seem to be steps in the right direction towards ensuring that innocent people are not spending their lives in jail.

Not only has the Innocence Project exonerated wrongfully convicted inmates, it has also persuaded hundreds of local jurisdictions to adopt reforms and worked with local advocates to advance legislation in nearly every state.

“When the Innocence Project was founded in 1992, not a single state had a law granting post-conviction DNA access to prisoners; now, nearly every state has one,” the project’s website states. “Dozens of measures have also been passed to address evidence preservation, exoneree compensation, eyewitness identification procedures and recording of interrogations. Several states have created commissions to examine the cause of wrongful conviction and recommend remedies.”

For each cause of wrongful conviction, the Innocence Project states there are straightforward and proven remedies.

“Police can change how they administer lineups to reduce errors; forensic science standards and oversight can increase the reliability of evidence; recording interrogations can reduce false confessions,” the project’s website states.

Eyewitness misidentification is one of the common sources of wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project states that eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75 percent of convictions overturned by DNA.

“The interesting thing that DNA results tell us is that the logical assumption that people have is that eyewitnesses would not be mistaken…but what DNA has shown us is that they’re…wrong a lot and that the assumption that eyewitnesses get it right is actually incorrect,” Beckett said. “Even if you’re not certain, why would you use the death penalty in a situation where there could be some question?”

Commitment to reforming the systematic problems with our justice system and exonerating wrongfully convicted inmates makes the Innocence Project a noteworthy cause. Efforts like this will help in creating a justice system that is focused on impartial judgment and making sure the innocent are not serving unjust sentences. If our justice system continues on the path it is on, our nation will only be compounding one tragic crime by committing another. 

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