NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
Partner, Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, and Co-founder, Innocence Project
Launched an international human rights movement that has freed nearly 400 wrongly convicted persons through DNA.
“To be able to save a life or restore one’s liberty is an honor,” says nationally-recognized attorney Peter Neufeld. The child of progressive activists, Neufeld’s exposure to the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements planted the seeds for a career in America’s criminal legal system. After years of working as a public defender, Neufeld’s interest in science grew along with the implications of “forensic DNA tests.” If weaker serological or other unproven forensic evidence could convict people of crimes, he wondered, what if new DNA evidence could prove they weren’t the perpetuator of the crime? That idea motivated Neufeld to co-found Innocence Project with two simple objectives: to exonerate thousands of innocent people across the United States and implement reforms that helped prevent wrongful convictions in the future.
Now an international human rights movement, Innocence Project serves as the headquarters of the Innocence Network, a coalition of nearly 70 member organizations around the world. Their impact on the system is profound: Nearly 400 persons have been freed by DNA, including 21 who served time on death row. The stories of exonerees, coupled with new empirical research, have fueled improvements in eyewitness identification procedures, recording of interrogations, and eliminating unvalidated forensic methods. It’s a narrative, says Neufeld, that “appeals to everyone, whether they’re democrats, republicans, conservatives, or liberals.” And it’s work that has educated judges, policy makers, and the public on why and how wrongful convictions happen, and what can be done to remediate the causes.
Under the leadership of Neufeld and his co-founder, Innocence Project has notched significant victories on both fronts. Their efforts have driven the passage of over 250 statutes in all 50 states and the federal system. When Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, the governor cited the exoneration of Neufeld’s client, Earl Washington Jr.—a man who had come within nine days of execution. Due in large part to Washington’s case and others, several governors have mentioned the risk of executing the innocent as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment in their state.
Innocence Project continues to be a leading voice in criminal legal reform, as well as the remediation of technologies, procedures, and systems misused to identify, charge, convict, and sentence, in particular, suspects of color. Moreover, they’re convincing police departments and district attorneys’ offices to change their policies so they’re fairer, more equitable, and more accurate. But Neufeld realizes Innocence Project will need to do more than introduce reforms and change rules: They’ll need to change the values shaping criminal law itself. “To do that, people will need to be governed not so much by fear but by hope,” says Neufeld. “And if hope and compassion dominate in the future, we’re going to have a better system.”