Since its founding ten years ago, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has helped free 15 Pennsylvanians from prison.
The program is a non-profit organization dedicated to freeing those who have been wrongfully convicted. Founded by a group of lawyers, the organization aspires to improve the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania through education, advocacy and policy reform.
Joanne Epps, the executive vice president and provost of Temple, was the Dean of the Beasley School of Law at the time of the PA Innocence Project’s founding in 2009.
Ten years later, she recalls being immediately interested in housing the PA Innocence Project at Temple, which is located at the Center City Campus.
“It was one of the things that I felt, as a former prosecutor, was important to exist in this country. The worst thing you can have is somebody that’s serving time for a crime they didn’t commit. So I was intrigued,” Epps said. “I think it’s consistent with the values of Temple University and Temple Law School that we try to do good. So, I felt that a project like the Innocence Project fits.”
Epps explained that the project has to be very particular about the cases they take, due to the way the United States judicial system investigates cases.
“[Cases taken by the PA Innocence Project] tend to be cases where you can actually prove factual innocence,” she said. “So DNA is a good example of that. If you have somebody that is wrongly convicted of distributing drugs, that person may never get her or his case taken by an Innocence Project because it’s really difficult to scientifically or empirically prove that was a wrong conviction.”
There are several fairly common circumstances that can lead to a person being wrongfully incarcerated, said Nan Feyler, the project’s executive director. One of the most common is a false confession.
“There’s no law that says the investigator can’t lie or make up evidence to get somebody in the interrogation,” Feyler said. “So they can say we found your blood. We found your DNA. We found other people who have said you did it. And it’s all just stuff that’s not factually true.”
“[People] admit to things thinking that it will get them home, when in fact it ends up putting them away for the rest of their lives,” said David Sonenshein, an executive board member of the project and a former professor at the Beasley School of Law.
False identification is another common problem, Sonenshein said.
“All psychologists will tell you, the ability to see somebody you’ve never seen before, and then later identify them, and then a year or two later identify that person again, is completely flawed, not because people are dishonest, but because your mind doesn’t simply take photographs,” Sonenshein said. “It’s not the way the brain works.”
The journey to getting a person who has been wrongly convicted of a crime freed from prison can be long and arduous, Feyler said. It takes an average of about eight to nine years for the project to go through the full process of representing and exonerating someone, even when there is clear evidence of innocence, like DNA.
The organization also provides training to students at law schools across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Law students have the opportunity to be assigned individual cases, for which they conduct legal research and investigate facts to discover how to support a claim of innocence, Feyler said.
“We have many Temple students who volunteer at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project who have been very helpful in getting innocent people back home,” Sonenshein said. “Both in terms of giving us the office space in Philadelphia, and also in providing many many students to do a lot of the investigation and volunteer work. Temple has been an absolute leader in this whole process.”
Epps said that the work Temple students do at the project is important not only to the people they help free, but also to their education as well.
“I believe it is really important when you are educating students of all manners, but particularly law students, that they have an opportunity to see while they’re students how the legal system works,” she said. “And if you can teach them that while you’re also helping [achieve] justice, then that’s like a dual win.”
Sonenshein said that for lawyers at the PA Innocence Project, the most rewarding part of the whole process is watching individuals leave prison.
“The moment when the person leaves jail and is embraced by his or her family, obviously there are tears,” he said. “Somebody’s been given a second life, and if you’re a lawyer, it’s hard to ask for any more.”