Pro Bono - Law Firms Winston & Strawn LLP In Partnership With The Innocence Project To Create An Analytical Model For DNA Exonerations

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - 01:00

Winston & Strawn LLP has joined forces with the Innocence Project of New York and the Merrill Corporation to create a comprehensive database of the 148 known DNA exonerations nationwide. The Innocence Project is a nationally-recognized advocacy organization that seeks to exonerate the wrongfully convicted based on post-conviction DNA testing, and advocates for various reforms to the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions.

Our partnership seizes on an opportunity to explore the criminal justice system by deconstructing these unique cases that involve a person who was wrongly convicted at trial as a matter of factual certainty. Peter Neufeld, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, describes this effort as "the single greatest contribution of any private law firm to the innocence movement."

Winston & Strawn's involvement cuts across the firm and involves attorneys and staff from several departments - from partners to summer associates, to paralegals and IT staff. The objectives of the project are to: (1) identify any systemic flaws which led to these wrongful convictions, and (2) make a comprehensive and searchable repository of the exonerated case histories available for public access.

A key benefit for the firm is that the project will offer our attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals short-term, interesting pro bono activities that can have a profound impact on the criminal justice system. In addition, through a unique partnership with the University of Illinois School of Law, nearly 30 law students enrolled in an "innocence" course and have participated in the data mining process.

The first step of this project is locating, acquiring, and storing the court files of the 148 exonerations. Several paralegal volunteers are developing background materials about the cases. Summer associates in all offices will track down the files through telephone communication, written correspondence, and Freedom of Information Act requests as needed.

The second step is organizing and storing the files. A team of paralegals review the files and organize them into a coherent scheme. Then, Merrill will scan them onto CD-ROM's for easy access and review. They will be stored in electronic form.

The third step is the "data-mining" and data entry phase. More than 50 volunteers from the summer programs in all our offices and students at the University of Illinois School of Law review the file and trial transcripts. They collect data regarding the defendants' and victims' personal background (race, age, gender, etc.), police procedures (i.e., types of identification procedures, whether or not a confession was taken), and trial circumstances (whether the defendant testified on his own behalf, the use of "jail-house snitches" etc.). Finally, the volunteers enter the data into a database by completing a detailed electronic questionnaire "template" for each case. We developed the template used in collaboration with the Innocence Project. We anticipate completing these three stages by mid-2005.

The final stage is a substantive evaluation of the data by the Innocence Project, Winston & Strawn attorneys, and other experts in the "innocence" field. This could lead to proposed legislative changes, scholarly articles, and other advocacy.

Our hope is that the project will create an invaluable resource for reform. For the first time there will be hard data and statistical information on the possible causes of erroneous convictions available to a large audience of reformers, academics, legal scholars, law enforcement agencies, and the general public.

David Koropp is a Partner at Winston & Strawn LLP in Chicago. His email address is dkoropp@winston.com.