Since the first Innocence Project's founding in New York in 1992, more than 400 individuals serving long prison sentences for rape or murder have been exonerated based on DNA analysis of blood, semen, or other biological material, or on other evidence conclusively establishing their innocence. The exonerations are largely the work of individual, non-profit innocence projects throughout the U.S. and Canada, most of which are associated with law or journalism schools. In a significant percentage of these cases, exoneration led to the apprehension of the actual perpetrator, who would otherwise have continued to escape justice.
In 2004, Bruce Godschalk walked out of a Pennsylvania prison, 17 years after being wrongly convicted of two rape charges. His exoneration was made possible through post-conviction DNA testing and the steadfast efforts of renowned Philadelphia civil rights attorney David Rudovsky. It is because of Godschalk's story, and hundreds like it, that Rudovsky and David Richman, a former prosecutor and long-time prisoners rights advocate as a litigator with Pepper Hamilton LLP, teamed up to form the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
Using DNA testing or other irrefutable evidence, the project, housed at Temple University Beasley School of Law, will work to identify, and then exonerate, Pennsylvania inmates who have been wrongfully convicted despite their actual innocence. Armed with the evidence of flawed practices revealed by wrongful convictions, it will also advocate for reforms of the criminal justice system and the adoption of best practices statewide. Through Temple Law's innocence clinic, specially-trained students will screen, investigate and pursue in the courts claims of actual innocence under the supervision of the project's legal director and volunteer lawyers.
With the launch of this project, Pennsylvania joins more than 50 other innocence projects nationwide dedicated to securing freedom for persons imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and eliminating the causes of wrongful convictions.
"Temple Law has always been a leader in public service, so our association with this legal innocence project is a natural fit," said JoAnne A. Epps, dean of the law school. "It provides exciting opportunities not only for Temple and the faculty, but most of all for the students who will learn valuable legal skills as participants in this vital endeavor that seeks to strengthen the quality of justice."
The need for an innocence project in Pennsylvania is borne out by the eight exonerations to date of Pennsylvania prisoners, in addition to Bruce Godschalk. Those Pennsylvania exonerees are among more than 400 nationwide who were imprisoned for 12 years on average before DNA or other evidence convinced a court that the wrong person had been convicted.
"Certainly, a society that pledges allegiance to the principle of 'justice for all' cannot tolerate the conviction of innocent people. But beyond correcting individual miscarriages of justice, we hope to work with police, prosecutors and judges in implementing the lessons taught by the wrongful conviction cases. In that way we will increase the criminal justice system's effectiveness in detecting and punishing true wrongdoers," said Richard C. Glazer, the project's executive director, who also chairs the city's Ethics Board.