The lights dim and the room fills with applause as Peter Neufeld takes his spot behind the podium. Neufeld is a partner at a civil rights law firm in New York; he also is a co-founder of The Innocence Project, a public policy organization that is committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted criminals through post-conviction DNA testing. At 7 p.m. on October 27 in the Knapp Center of Drake University, Peter Neufeld became the 35th speaker at the Bucksbaum lecture.
Neufeld started the Innocence Project with Barry Scheck in 1992. Since then they have helped exonerate over 330 people, some of which were serving a death sentence.
“It became not only a matter of wrongful conviction but to stop public violence,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld pointed out not only the problems that arose in the cases that he witnessed with his clients but in the police force as a whole. He pointed out six reasons why he believes there are so many cases of wrongful conviction. The six reasons he provided were; misidentification, false confession, misapplication of forensic science, lousy defense attorneys, violations of the Brady Doctrine, and race.
Misidentification of suspects is a common reason and could be caused by something as simple as a detective working on the case unknowingly influencing a witness.
Stephanie Swartz is an investigator at the Des Moines Police Department and relates to the “tunnel vision” that many detectives often experience during an investigation. Neufeld suggested having an officer not working on the case be present for the photo array but this cannot always be a reality in the police force.
“We don’t always have the manpower to have a blind investigator do the photo array,” Swartz said. “What I’m always careful to do is have a kind of pretext reading saying that the suspect may or may not be in this photo array. Don’t feel like you need to pick the one most like the suspect because the suspect may not be in this photo lineup.”
Although it is not always possible for the Des Moines Police Department to follow Neufeld’s advice exactly as he provided it they do take the matter of false convictions very seriously.
“It is as much the responsibility of the officer to exonerate the innocent as it is to arrest the guilty,” Swartz said.
President of Drake University Earl “Marty” Martin had heard Neufeld speak once before, at Northwesten University in 1998.
“This has been an area of interest for me for a long long time,” Martin said. “I think people heard a really compelling case for criminal justice reform, for resources being devoted to making sure we do it right when we prosecute someone for an offense, and its really wonderful news that the governor has formed this task force in the public defenders force.”
As announced on Monday, Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa has established a specialized state unit dedicated to wrongful convictions.
“It really shows that our highest official in the state takes it seriously,” Martin said.
Every Bucksbaum lecture ends with a question and answer segment. This year a question posed was what happened to these people when they were released from prison. There were eyes filled with tears as Neufeld explained that even though these people may have been stone cold innocent it can still be challenging to find employment and housing simply because of the fact that they have been out of the real world for so long.
But Neufeld has found peace in his work and said, “For all the disappointment there are those moments when you get to take someone by the hand and walk them into the light of freedom.”