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O.J. Simpson's defense lawyer visits Hofstra

O.J. Simpson's defense lawyer visits Hofstra

Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii School of Law

“Lessons from Exonerating the Innocent,” a lecture hosted by the Maurice A. Deane School of Law and featuring guest speaker Barry Scheck, discussed the Innocent Project last Thursday, Sept. 27. Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance, DNA testing and other services to people who believe that they have been wrongly convicted of crimes, in 1992. Scheck’s lecture focused on the many successes of the Innocence Project, as well as his years of experience as a lawyer. The event was sponsored by the Freedman Institute, an on-campus research center that studies legal ethics and other law student associations at the university. 

Bruce A. Barket, a founding partner of the law firm Barket Epstein, donor to the law school and a close friend of Scheck, spoke at the lecture as well. He introduced Scheck as “one of the heroes of the criminal defense world over the last 50 years.” He described Scheck as a native New Yorker who studied at Yale University and the University of California Berkeley Law School, then went to work at the Bronx County Legal Aid Society. “He then became one of the youngest professors – if not the youngest professor ever – at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law [at Yeshiva University] and he started something called the Innocence Project,” Barket said. He also spoke of the case Scheck is likely most known for: O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, in which Scheck served on Simpson’s defense team. He added that he was “stunned” by Scheck’s “skill and charisma.”

Scheck and the other co-founder of the Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld, developed the idea for the organization. “We just knew a lot about forensic evidence,” Scheck said. “We had some expertise in serology and DNA evidence. We started using it in cases and we recognized almost immediately that not only could DNA identify people who had committed crimes, but [it] could exonerate people who had been convicted of crimes if we could go back and test that old evidence.” The program does not exclusively work with DNA-based cases; it will advocate for clients who have other compelling information that may call into question their convictions.

Scheck blames high levels of wrongful convictions on many different factors, but said that “in all the movement around criminal justice reform that we’ve been lucky enough to see in maybe the last 10-15 years, not enough attention is being paid to the defense function.” 

He argued that the “overburdened” defense function must be strengthened for “progressive prosecutors” to push for things like “bail reform, reentry” and “efforts to reduce mass incarceration.”

Scheck added that race is a significant factor when it comes to wrongful convictions . He said he “knew from the very beginning” that the Innocence Project could not focus its work solely on exonerating prisoners; it had to concentrate on “legislative agenda and policy reform as well.” According to the Innocence Project’s website, it has a policy department that aims to achieve this by working with Congress, state legislatures and local leaders to develop new laws and policies that will make wrongful convictions less frequent.

“There have been 362 post-conviction DNA exonerations and in 158 of those cases, the person who really committed the crime has been identified.” This is due largely in part to the Innocence Project – which has 53 locations throughout the country and one of the first legal institutes to purposely use the process of DNA testing to exonerate innocent prisoners, according to Scheck.

The focus is on the next generation. All Innocence Project locations are independent non-profit entities, and the majority are housed in law schools. “The best way to really open people’s eyes to these problems in the criminal justice system was to work through law schools and law students,” he said.

The audience at the lecture was comprised of mainly law students. Cody Dooley, a law student, said one of his professors had encouraged him to attend. “I thought I might as well come and learn from the best when it comes to exonerating people [and] being a defense lawyer,” Dooley said.

“I’m a fellow with [the Freedman Institute], but even if I hadn’t been, he’s one of the great legal talents of this century – and the past century,” said Dennis Swanson, a law student. “Everyone knows him from the O.J. case, but he’s pioneered so many fascinating statutory laws, evidentiary rules and ways of doing things that I just really wanted to hear him speak.”

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