Innocence Project Becomes Focus Of New Film

The non-profit Innocence Project has been litigating to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing since 1992. The organization played a role in the exoneration of Kenneth Waters, once convicted in a bloody murder and sentenced to life in prison. His sister, Betty Anne Waters, earned a law degree to assist in his defense, then called upon Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project for assistance. Sheck is depicted in the new Hilary Swank film, "Conviction." Host Michel Martin speaks with Scheck about efforts to alter public policy and exonerate those wrongfully convicted.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, today, we're going to tell you about a new movie coming out this week. Its called "Conviction." Tomorrow we'll be speaking with a woman named Betty Anne Waters, and the two-time Oscar-winning actress who portrays her, Hilary Swank. Betty Anne Waters is a woman who spent 18 years fighting to overturn her brother's wrongful conviction for murder.

Today though, we want to share a bit of the movie's backstory. In the film, Betty Anne Waters calls upon an organization called the Innocence Project for help with DNA testing that could lead to her brother's exoneration. Barry Scheck co-founded The Innocence Project back in 1992 and he's with us now from New York.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BARRY SCHECK (Attorney; Founder, the Innocence Project): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me play a short clip from the film. This is Betty Anne Waters, played, as we said, by Hilary Swank. Her friend is played by actress Minnie Driver and she's trying to convince her that her quest to get this evidence tested might not be possible. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Conviction")

Ms. MINNIE DRIVER (Actor): (as Abra Rice) Betty, they destroyed it.

Ms. HILARY SWANK (Actor): (as Betty Anne Waters) No. That evidence exists somewhere and I'm going to find it.

Ms. DRIVER: (as Abra Rice) Okay, let's say you do find it, what if the DNA matches Kenny's?

Ms. SWANK: (as Betty Anne Waters) Get out. Get the hell out of my house right now.

Ms. DRIVER: (as Abra Rice) No. You ought to hear this. Even the most amazing fighter, the most brilliant lawyer in the world, there are forces greater than you and you may not win.

Ms. SWANK: (as Betty Anne Waters) You think I haven't thought of that?

Ms. DRIVER: (as Abra Rice) You haven't.

MARTIN: Obviously, this clip in part shows just how seriously Betty Anne felt in her brother's innocence that she was willing to fight with a very close friend of hers in order to defend him. But the larger question is, how often is it the case that evidence that would be helpful no longer exists?

Mr. SCHECK: Well, about half the time when we finally take a case because our criteria is: Would DNA evidence prove that person was innocent? The evidence is, you know, reported to be lost or destroyed and it really has nothing to do with what the law is in a particular state. It has to do with the local legal culture as to whether they save it or not.

MARTIN: There is the case though, that prosecutors still resist sometimes opening up or testing evidence anew. In fact, there's a case before the Supreme Court now where there's a Texas death row inmate who was allegedly found with the blood of murder victims on his clothing and he's seeking the court's help in getting access to other evidence that might implicate somebody else. Why is there still resistance to testing evidence?

Mr. SCHECK: It's hard to comprehend, really. I mean the resistance is less and less. When we started the Innocence Project in 1992, there was no state in the country that had a post-conviction DNA statute. Now, 48 states have post-conviction DNA statutes because, as you well know, there were statutes of limitations, there still are in many states, on bringing in newly discovered evidence of innocence. I dont think the average person understands quite rightly, as to why, if there's new reliable, you know, clear evidence that somebody didnt do the crime, can you not get into court and present it.

MARTIN: Well, prosecutors are arguing, I think, that those who oppose bringing evidence in or who would prefer to keep strict deadlines on this argue that these appeals are either frivolous or burdensome to the system. What is your response to that?

Mr. SCHECK: There's a good argument to be made in favor of finality, but not really when it comes to DNA evidence that can demonstrate innocence and identify the person who really committed the crime. I mean we're talking here about particularly reliable evidence so that your adjudication 10, 20, 30 years later can be more reliable than that first trial. Even though memories fade and witnesses disappear, you know, DNA is very reliable and can tell you something that you never would've known at the first trial. Just as in Kenny's case, the murder was in 1981, his trial was in 1983 and DNA evidence hadn't come into the courtrooms until 1989.

MARTIN: And in fact, that some of the people who your project has helped have been in prison for decades, like Kenny, even longer than Kenny Waters was in prison until DNA evidence led to their release. I just want to play a short clip from an interview that we did with a Mr. James Bain, who was convicted of the 1974 kidnapping and rape of a nine-year-old boy, largely on the testimony of another nine-year-old. He was eventually assisted by the Innocence Project and he was released after 35 years in prison. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation I had with Mr. Bain last December.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. JAMES BAIN: When I go back to that moment, Miss, a big relief come to me and that's the first time I ever seen a even a judge smile.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. BAIN: He said it in such a way, he just went smiling himself.

MARTIN: You told reporters that youre not angry despite having, you know, 35 years of your life taken away. Why do you think youre not?

Mr. BAIN: Miss, after looking back after that all this here took place, I can't feel bitter because the family was doing what they feel was best because I would've did the same thing.

MARTIN: Well, what about you Mr. Scheck? After all these years now working on cases like this where you see, you know, errors, in some cases deliberate, or misconduct applied to cases where many peoples lives have been wasted, if I can say that. How do you feel now about the system of which you are a part?

Mr. SCHECK: Well, we always are upset when there's, you know, misconduct that leads to a wrongful conviction. But we have a whole agenda of reforms which get at the causes of wrongful conviction and we're making progress on all these fronts. So if we take an opportunity now and try to figure out these causes and how we can redress them, it's a win-win for the whole system.

MARTIN: I think I would be remiss if I didnt mention your involvement in another notorious, famous case of criminal justice case...

Mr. SCHECK: You mean the case of the football player in Los Angeles?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The football player in Los Angeles, O.J. Simpson.

Mr. SCHECK: Yeah.

MARTIN: This case continues to be polarizing, I would think, which many people continue to believe that this is a case of a wrongful release, where there's sort of technicalities allowed a release to go forward of someone to be released who should have been convicted. And I just wondered after all these years later, what are your thoughts about that?

Mr. SCHECK: My view about that matter is that it didnt do anything good that I can see for the American criminal justice system, but there was a silver lining and the silver lining had to do with the forensics.

Crime labs all across the country, police departments all agreed essentially with the critique that the defense made about how everything was collected, that it was wrong and unreliable and couldnt happen that way again. And it really caused a sea change in the way that law enforcement approaches essentially what's a 21st century technology and they no longer use, you know, 19th century evidence-gathering methods. So that's about the only good thing these days that I can think of that came out of the Simpson matter.

MARTIN: So at the end of the day, what do you think we should think about our criminal justice system? We often like to believe that it is the best and fairest in the world. Is it? What should we draw from your experience over the course of time?

Mr. SCHECK: Well, it's in some ways, I would say in most ways, the greatest in the world. But, only because, you know, we have to work at it. I mean there's so much we can do to make this system more reliable and frankly, more scientific and that is the work of our project.

And Innocence Project, the concept that there are lawyers that are just focusing on whether somebody did it or not after the conviction, that's a very different idea than, you know, the conventional adversary system. Although, please, let me be the absolute first to tell you that the criminal defense lawyer who sometimes represents the guilty, right, is liberty's last champions. And if it weren't for the defense lawyers the whole system would implode on itself. So I dont want to pooh-pooh the adversary system. I'm just saying that this innocence movement is something different and I think we can now see close to 20 years into it, something extremely beneficial for the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: Barry Scheck is the co-founder of the Innocence Project. It's affiliated with the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. He is portrayed in the new movie "Conviction," which is out this Friday.

And this is a reminder that we'll be speaking with the star and executive producer of that film Hilary Swank tomorrow, as well as the person Ms. Swank portrays, Betty Anne Waters.

And Barry Scheck joined us from out bureau in New York.

Barry Scheck, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SCHECK: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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