Nearly 350 innocent people spent an average of 14 years in prison before the Innocence Project helped set them free. Barry Scheck has some ideas on how to keep more people from needing his group's help.
Moving toward DNA evidence instead of other forensic evidence that can be flawed can help keep innocent people out of prison, said Scheck, director of the group that works to identify and free wrongfully convicted prisoners.
But if everyone involved in the criminal justice system was held to high ethical standards through rules and laws, the system would be more sound, Scheck said in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.
"Good people," he said, "do bad things."
That can include any player in the criminal justice system, Scheck said as he spoke to an audience that included law students and defense attorneys, as well as Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby.
He also pointed to the center of Moot Courtroom, where Brandon Moon, a Utah man who was convicted of three counts of rape in Texas, sat.
Moon served 17 years of a 75-year prison sentence — much of it fighting his conviction — before he was exonerated by DNA evidence with the help of the Innocence Project.
"I think that the biggest problem that we have is ethics," Moon told The Salt Lake Tribune after the speech. When we're willing to bend the rules a little bit to get a conviction, instead of looking for the truth, always looking for the truth."
Eyewitness misidentification and unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to Moon's wrongful conviction, which he said routinely occurs across the country.
The Innocence Project, Scheck said, is also working to increase the use of videotaped interrogations, prevent the use of informants who have an incentive to provide testimony against a suspect, and ensure that suspects receive adequate attorney representation.
He told of a case in Texas, where Michael Morton spent 24 years in prison for his wife's slaying before he was exonerated in 2011 by DNA that identified the true killer.
Defense attorneys had asked the judge in the case to look through the investigative report for potential evidence that could have prevented Morton's conviction. The judge looked and found none.
After Morton was exonerated, the Innocence Project received the report through a public records request and found that evidence that could have helped Morton during his trial wasn't included in the file given to the judge. A court later found probable cause that the former prosecutor concealed evidence during the trial.
The Innocence Project, Scheck said, has worked to enforce rules for attorneys, on both sides of a case, that require prosecutors to hand over evidence that could be helpful to a suspect standing trial.
"It could happen to anybody," Scheck said of a wrongful conviction. "That's really the truth."