The Innocence Project: Science helping innocent people proven guilty

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PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20, 2012 — Should Lady Justice, that centuries-old personification of truth and fairness in the legal system, cast off her ancient Roman robe, sword and scales and instead embrace 21st century symbols of justice meted out objectively without fear or favor? A scientist’s laboratory jacket, perhaps? And a spiral strand of the genetic material DNA?

An unusual symposium that might beg such a question ― showcasing chemistry’s role in righting some of the highest-profile cases of innocent people proven guilty ― unfolds today at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. It features presentations by forensic scientists, attorneys and others who used science to right wrongs, freeing innocent people and saving the lives of prisoners on death row.

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Justin J. McShane, J.D., co-chair of the ACS Division of Chemistry and the Law – Forensic Science, noted that the session also will include exonerated people who spent time behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

“This combination of people will make this gathering a unique event, one never before done at such a level,”

said McShane, who is chairman and CEO of the McShane Firm, Harrisburg, Pa. “It showcases chemistry’s critical, but often-hidden role in protecting the innocent through collection and accurate analysis of crime-scene and other evidence.”

Participants in the event, entitled “Forensic Chemistry, Science and the Law Presents: Innocence! The Work of the Innocence Project,” include Fred Whitehurst, the FBI agent who forced reform of the FBI Crime Lab and was almost fired for doing so; John Lentini, a premier fire investigator whose evidence showed that the State of Texas executed an innocent man; Greg Hampikian, one of the DNA test experts who got Amanda Knox freed after she was convicted of murder in Italy; and Barry Scheck from the O. J. Simpson “Dream Team” defense and co-founder of The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.

The symposium is among the special presidential events here sponsored by ACS President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Ph.D., who has called on the society’s 164,000 members to work as scientist-citizens in solving great global challenges of the 21st century.

“We face challenges such as surging population growth, limited natural resources, malnutrition, disease, climate change, violence and war, and the denial of basic human rights,” Shakhashiri explained. “The speakers in this symposium exemplify forensic chemistry in addressing the denial of basic human rights when people are innocent, yet convicted of crimes.”

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. So far, the project has been instrumental in the exoneration of 292 people in the U.S., including 17 who served time on death row. They served an average of 13 years in prison before being released.

The presentations include:

  • Forensic science: Struggles from the past, in the present and into the future
    Frederic Whitehurst, Ph.D., J.D., an FBI supervisory agent working in the famed FBI laboratory, asked basic questions concerning the validity of the underlying science the laboratory was performing. He was ostracized and transferred for his whistle-blowing, but ultimately his efforts led to 40 different major reforms within the FBI laboratory.
  • Fire debris and explosive investigation: Cameron Todd Willingham and other cases of innocence
    John J. Lentini, Scientific Fire Analysis, Big Pine Key, Fla., is a world-renowned expert in chemistry and forensic science in fire and explosive debris investigations. His most famous case involves Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas. Using modern forensic fire science, Lentini showed that the state of Texas had executed an innocent man.
  • Amanda Knox, and other cases of innocence
    Greg Hampikian, Ph.D., Boise State University, Department of Biology, Science/Nursing, is a geneticist and expert in DNA testing, whose analysis was critical in the release of the American student Amanda Knox, who was convicted by an Italian Court of murder. He has been involved in numerous other cases involving wrongful convictions and exonerations across the globe.
  • Running an innocence project: Selecting, investigating, vetting and litigating claims of actual factual innocence
    Marissa Boyers Bluestine, J.D., Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Temple University Beasley School of Law, will discuss the workings of the national litigation and policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully accused persons through DNA evidence. She will speak about the process of selecting, investigating, vetting and litigating claims of actual factual innocence.
  • The Innocence Project and exonerations
    Barry Scheck, J.D., co-founder of the Innocence Project, New York City, was part of the "dream team" that defended O.J. Simpson in his murder trial, where he exposed the flaws surrounding the collection and interpretation of the DNA evidence. He will discuss how the organization was created and describe some of his most notable cases.
  • 40-minute case study of exoneree Ray Krone
    Ray Krone, Innocence Project, New York City, was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 10 years in prison, including two years on death row. He will talk about how he won a new trial on appeal, but was convicted again. Ultimately, Krone was released from prison after DNA evidence proved that he did not murder the victim.
  • 40-minute case study of exoneree Raymond Santana
    Raymond Santana, Innocence Project, New York City, was one of five men convicted in New York City’s highly publicized Central Park Jogger Case, which involved an assault and rape. After spending 12 years in prison, he and the others were exonerated when another man claimed to have committed the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed he committed the rape.
  • 40-minute case study of exoneree Steven Barnes
    Steven Barnes was convicted and sentenced to 25 to life, spending 19.5 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. His trial featured some truly bizarre scientific testimony of non-validated science. Eventually, he was freed when the non-validated nature of the science was revealed.

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Hands grasping prison bars.
The Innocence Project, focus of an American
Chemical Society symposium, has helped in the
release of numerous innocent prisoners.