As part of the Innocence Project team for the exoneration of Cornelius Dupree, Elizabeth Langston ’05 walked into a Texas courthouse with him in 2010. “Right before we stepped inside, he turned to me and said, ‘You’ve got be strong because if you are strong, I can be strong.’ I thought to myself, ‘He’s been in prison all these years for something he didn’t do.’ When things go wrong in my life, recalling that moment reminds me of his strength and his hope. It puts things into perspective.”
Cross-racial eyewitness identification was what initially put Cornelius Dupree behind bars for 30 years—and DNA testing, arranged through the Innocent Project, set him free.
Dupree had been only 19 when convicted of a robbery that occurred in connection with a rape. “He and a friend were stopped by police because they matched a general description,” Langston says. “The victims were a woman and a man—two white victims and two black perpetrators. The woman identified him and his friend.” A 2010 re-examination of the rape kit, processing DNA in a way that was impossible at the time of the crime, revealed two male profiles—neither of which matched that of Dupree. “It was a great moment: we knew he was innocent,” she recalls.
The Innocence Project, begun in 1992 as a clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and now a separate nonprofit, uses DNA testing to re-examine convictions. With a staff of seven full-time lawyers, each with a caseload of approximately 50 clients, the project continues to provide a law school clinic for Cardozo students—such as Langston, Jess Smith ’06 and Rachel Pecker ’05—with legal experience and heavy responsibility.
Not every case leads to exoneration, Pecker points out, quoting statistics from the Project website: “Among our cases that go to DNA testing, the DNA proves our clients innocent about as often as it suggests they are guilty. In a review of Innocence Project cases that went to DNA testing and were then closed over a five-year period, DNA testing proved innocence in about 43 percent of cases, confirmed the prosecution theory in about 42 percent of cases, and was inconclusive or not probative in about 15 percent of cases.”
However, like Langston, both Smith and Pecker have experienced the moment of watching a formerly convicted criminal be declared innocent. Smith’s client, Freddie Peacock, had already served his sentence but still sought the help of the Innocence Project. “He refused to let being out of jail be enough,” said Smith. “For the pure and simple dignity of it, he wanted exoneration. His message: ‘I still believe in the justice system enough so this will mean something.’”
Pecker’s client, Michael Morton, had been convicted of murdering his wife, despite his continued insistence that he was innocent, and had served 25 years of the life sentence. The Innocence Project accepted his case in 1999 and spent six years trying to gain permission from the prosecutors to subject a bloody bandanna to DNA analysis. It had been found in the construction site behind the couple’s home the day after the murder. The DNA results were coming back just as Pecker had joined the team last June.
The DNA profiles were from two people, a female and a male. While the female DNA matched that of the murdered woman, the male DNA was not from Morton. The team was heartened by this proof that Morton was not the murderer, but they knew that the prosecutors were resistant and planned to continue to fight Morton’s release, despite this first exclusion. Next, they ran the unknown male’s DNA through CODIS, the national database of DNA from convicted criminals. There they found a match to a convicted felon, whose DNA has now also matched an unsolved murder that occurred two years after Christine Morton’s in a neighboring town.
Prior to this, in 2008, the team had submitted a Texas Public Records request for the prosecutor’s evidence. They were stunned to find it included among other items, the transcript of a police interview with the couple’s son, 3 years old at the time, a few days after the crime, describing the bludgeoning of his mother by a man who was “not Daddy.” The son, now a married adult himself, has no memory of this event; he was raised by his mother’s sister and had cut off communication with his father when he was a teen. Additionally, the file included a report from police from another Texas town, that the murdered woman’s charge card appeared to have been used. Amazingly, these were never shared with the defense, nor had police followed up on these leads, which had clearly pointed toward a suspect other than Morton.
“It was the exculpatory evidence from the 2008 records request, combined with the DNA exclusion and CODIS hit, that created the perfect storm we needed,” says Pecker.
The Innocence Project team requested—and received—permission for the release of their client. His conviction has been overturned by the Texas high court, and his final exoneration took place at a court hearing on Dec. 19.
Smith explains the process that a letter from a convicted person claiming innocence sets in motion: “Our key question is ‘Can DNA answer this question?’ If the answer is yes, one way or the other, guilty or innocent, then often the Innocence Project decides that it’s worth taking the case. The Innocence Project is a last resort—only after someone has tried everything else through the legal system, exhausted all of their appeals, does the IP get involved.”
The next step is to find the old evidence for updated analysis. It is a process that teaches perseverance. “We begin by telephoning the last known place it was stored,” says Smith. “We often have to call one person after another, chasing leads, and begging police officers in another state to please, please, get up out of your seat, go unlock the evidence room, and search through all the items there.”
For those who picture this evidence neatly stored on shelves and tracked on computerized lists—think again.
Much of this material dates back to pre-digital days. Items are catalogued with long ID numbers, handwritten on now-faded tags. Sometimes Innocence Project interns find their items stored elsewhere—a nearly flooded courthouse basement, a lawyer’s home office.
While some states now have laws that mandate proper procedure for maintaining evidence, Smith notes that some states don’t. Langston adds that advocating for legislative changes—such as evidence storage protocol, and witness identification techniques—is also a facet of the Innocence Project, which analyzes each case to determine the point (or points) that caused a miscarriage of justice.
For instance, they’ve found that many of the DNA exonerations had been convicted by eyewitness misidentification, and frequently where there was a cross-racial ID, as Dupree experienced.
“In the midst of trauma, the memory doesn’t always capture details that would make an identification a reliable basis on which to convict a person,” Langston notes.
She understands the forces at work that urge victims and officials, alike, toward a conviction: “I have tremendous empathy for the victims, and I understand that the police want to get the perpetrators and are under pressure to do so,” she says. “And when the jury hears evidence of ‘That’s the guy,’ it’s incredibly convincing and they want to do the right thing.”
In the case of Dupree’s exoneration, Langston calls it “lucky” that the district attorney didn’t oppose it, adding, “This is more rare than you’d like to believe. This particular D.A.’s office is committed to uncovering the truth; others argue that a convicted person has no right to even review evidence.”
While Langston, Smith, and Pecker were thrilled to see justice served in these cases, they see their work in a larger context. “I was just there representing a whole line of students who worked on the case. I feel fortunate that I got to see Cornelius walk free,” says Langston.
Smith concurs. “For as long as I live, it will be a touchstone: I helped someone get his dignity, his life, back.”
“I’m becoming a lawyer with the idea that I am furthering justice and helping to fix the injustices in our system,” says Pecker. She recalls that Morton’s first words to the press after exoneration were, “I thank God this wasn’t a capital case. I only had life.”—CYNTHIA E. ROCKWELL UPFRONT