Peter Neufeld stands in front of a bookcase packed with books

Advocating for Death Row’s Forsaken

By Dulcy Israel
Portrait courtesy of Peter Neufeld  

The Innocence Project has helped exonerate hundreds of wrongly convicted prisoners. Cofounded by Peter Neufeld, the project has grown from a staff of two to 85, and expanded into a network with 55 projects around the United States and roughly two dozen worldwide. He holds a JD from the School of Law.

You started your career as a Legal Aid Society attorney. It was the fiscal crisis and about two weeks before I was to commence, I was laid off [from my scheduled job]. So I drove out west and worked in a civil rights firm, then as an assistant to the director [Terrence Malick] on the film Days of Heaven. I then went to Legal Aid. Describe the genesis of the Innocence Project. Barry Scheck and I teamed up on the case of Marion Coakley, who was convicted of a rape and robbery. He had 12 alibi witnesses but the jury convicted him anyway. We had heard about a new technology for testing DNA being used in England. We thought we might be able to reinvestigate this case and do DNA testing. Why are most of those wrongfully convicted Black? Black men are hit with more serious charges for the same conduct, are more likely to be denied bail, are more frequently victimized by police and prosecutorial misconduct, and, at best, subject to indifference by judges, juries, and their appointed counsel. The disparities continue at sentencing and parole. Black exonerees received significantly longer sentences than White exonerees for the same type of crime. It takes on average four years longer to clear an innocent Black man for murder than one who is White. Is DNA still the project’s focus? That’s only a part of our work; the other part is policy. We try to come up with logical remedies to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. We’ve gotten more than 200 statutes passed on the state and federal level. We’ve gotten the judiciary, through court rules and opinions of the highest state courts, to implement many of the reforms we request. We’ve gotten members of the executive branch at the federal, state, and local level to implement some reforms we’ve suggested for years. Is there a Season 2 of The Innocence Files, the Netflix series about your work? I hope so. We wanted to do it thematically, differently than other shows which have a simple trajectory with reenactments. So they could look at prosecutorial misconduct, junk science, racism. And Netflix was a great partner.

Close-up of books

Read why Neufeld chose to pose with these books that inspired him.

“Black men are hit with more serious charges for the same conduct, are more likely to be denied bail, are more frequently victimized by police and prosecutorial misconduct, and, at best, subject to indifference by judges, juries, and their appointed counsel.”