On Wednesday 24th of January, President of the Innocence Project in Iowa, Dr Brian Farrell, spoke at a seminar in NUI Galway’s Human Rights Centre. The seminar, which was open to the public, went into detail about wrongful convictions (particularly in the USA) and the use of DNA evidence in prosecutions. The seminar room was full with about thirty people in attendance.
Farrell outlined the work that the Innocence Project has done since its conception in 1992. It was set up by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld as a “legal non-profit with a goal of investigating and identifying claims of wrongful conviction and employing DNA technology to try to substantiate those claims.” The success of the original Innocence Project has since led to almost 70 similar organisations to be established in other locations in America, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The work that began in 1992 has now led to 353 exonerations of innocent individuals in the United States. Farrell expanded on this number, giving interesting statistics; “of those 353 individuals, 20 had been sentenced to death, the average sentence was 14 years that was served before the exoneration occurred, 70% were minorities and about 40% of these exonerations also led to the identification of the actual perpetrator,” he told the room, clearly proud of the work the group has done in the past.
While the general population may have once thought that it seemed a simple task to identify a criminal due to the popularity of TV shows such as CSI and Criminal Minds, Farrell explained the difficulty with DNA evidence.
“To have DNA applicable in a case, you have to have biological material at the scene of the crime and you have to have that be somehow relevant to identifying the individual. All of your DNA will probably be left in this room when you leave,” he told his audience.
“But that does not link you to a crime if one were to happen here. So DNA is wonderful, but it has, in some ways, limited utility.”
There have been 2158 cases of wrongful convictions in the US, and instead of discussing the most interesting ones in speeches and at conferences, Farrell instead focuses on “the lessons that we’ve learned from wrongful convictions and what they can teach us about how to improve the integrity of the criminal justice system going forward.”
The science behind convictions is not as conclusive and uniform across all states in the US as one may think. Each state has different policies and investigation techniques when solving a case, and this can lead to unfair treatment of suspects. Fans of Making a Murderer and The Confession Tapes, both of which were hugely popular on Netflix, understand that forced confessions are more common than one would like to admit. Farrell admits that shows such as these are helping to show the public that there needs to be reform in the justice system and that “convictions can very easily be wrong.”
Farrell closed the talk by allowing Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs to speak, a married couple who met after they were both released from death row for crimes they did not commit. They now live in Connemara and are human rights campaigners, helping those who have been wrongly convicted to be re-integrated into society. More information about the couple can be found at sunnyandpeter.com
By Connell McHugh
Photo credit Victor