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The Law of Networks  By Sam Scott & Jessie Speer      

Stanford Social Innovation Review  Fall 2010     Copyright © 2010 by Leland Stanford Jr. University  All Rights Reserved   

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Action What Works The Law of Networks The Innocence Network grows rapidly and flexibly By Sam Scott & Je ss i e Spe e r

photograph by Ty Eppsteiner

James Bain’s 35-year nightmare began as so many wrongful convictions do—with an eyewitness identification gone awry. On March 4, 1974, someone snatched a sleeping 9-year-old from a home in Lake Wales, Fla., raping the boy in a nearby field. When the child returned, he could offer only a sketchy illustration of his attacker. He was a young man with bushy sideburns and facial hair. But that was enough for the boy’s uncle, who thought he recognized Bain in the details. With police pressing for a confirmation, the boy identified Bain as his attacker—a claim that would later trump defense testimony that Bain’s blood type ruled him out as the rapist. In August 1974, Bain, just 19, was sentenced to life in prison. And in prison Bain likely would have died. But in the spring of 2009, his case caught the attention of the Florida affiliate of the Innocence Network, an international collaboration of pro bono legal and investigative orga- Following his exoneration, James Bain (left) and his nizations dedicated to righting wrongful convictions. attorneys, Melissa Montle The Innocence Project of Florida had no idea if Bain was innoand Seth Miller, take quescent, says Seth Miller, its executive director. They believed only that tions from the media. he had the right to a test that would add certainty to the verdict. With the project’s attorneys behind him, Bain’s years-long quest for criminal justice issues of our time. But less attention has been paid to the network’s organizational style, which has enabled it to grow DNA testing was granted. In October 2009, a lab examined sperm rapidly and flexibly. Over the past decade, the Innocence Network from the victim’s underwear. By December, results were in. Bain has multiplied from eight projects to a collection of nearly 60 projwas not the rapist. Thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment were about to end, thanks to a test that took two months to process. ects spanning three continents. The Innocence Network stands out as one of the most successOn Dec. 17, 2009, Bain walked out of court a free man with a sinful examples of the affiliate model of nonprofit growth. Most nongular title—the person who had served more prison time than anyprofits follow the branch model, which concentrates control at a one yet exonerated by DNA testing. Otherwise, Bain’s story was alarmingly common. Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, more central headquarters. The less popular affiliate model favors decentralization, uniting loosely bound groups under a common cause. than 250 people convicted in the United States have been cleared Some network members are 501(c)(3) organizations. Some are by DNA tests, a number that has risen faster as technology has located within public defenders offices or private law firms. Most improved. In 2009 alone, there were 22 DNA-based exonerations. are part of law schools. Some take only cases with DNA evidence; a “People are sort of enamored with the Bain case,” Miller says. few take only those without it. Most pursue cases through legal ser“But I don’t know that his case is remarkable in any other way other vices, though a couple approach them as investigative journalists. than the length of incarceration.” “This model allows each project to adapt its service delivery an adaptable model method to the resources and needs of each local community,” says Exonerations like Bain’s have made the Innocence Network a meKeith Findley, president of the network and a law professor at the dia darling. Books, films, and TV shows have covered its dramatic University of Wisconsin. work, making wrongful convictions one of the most talked-about The network’s affiliate approach is less the result of well-honed strategy than of happenstance in the organization’s earliest beginSam Scott is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist. He was formerly a nings, Findley says. In 1992, Manhattan defense attorneys Barry reporter for the New York Times Regional Media Group. Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the first Innocence Project at Jessie Speer is an attorney and freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. Fall 2010 • Stanford Social Innovation Review


the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in raising its own money. Law schools, with Grow Your Network New York, tapping into the energies of stutheir institutional support and tradition of Inspire at all professional dents eager to help at a law clinic focused legal clinics, have made natural homes for levels on using science to free the convicted. Innocence Projects. But other models also At the time, forensic DNA was still a fledghave thrived. The New Orleans project, an Use available institutional ling idea. But the men saw its unparalleled unaffiliated nonprofit, has freed 15 prisonresources power not only to undo injustice in individers, one of the best records in the network. Work collectively and across Yet deLone says that starting such indepenual cases, but also to expose systemic convicgeographic lines tion problems. Their hunch was right. A year dent groups can be financially tough. after the Innocence Project’s start, Kirk “If you can start a project at a law school Bloodsworth, a Maryland man convicted of raping and murdering a with the support of the administration, you are halfway there,” she 9-year-old girl, became the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA says. “If you are constantly raising your operating budget, it’s putfingerprinting. DNA not only freed Bloodsworth, it later established ting a burden on yourself before you open a letter from the first the real murderer, a man Bloodsworth had come to know in prison. client.” As awareness of DNA’s power to expose wrongful convictions Ultimately, new applicants must satisfy the network’s board of expanded, Scheck and Neufeld recognized they couldn’t take on directors that they have the necessary resources. If a university cases across the country and began assisting others to form simiwants to start a project, for example, there has to be faculty support lar groups. In 2000, eight of the groups—including the Innocence that will outlast the interest of any one group of students. New Project in New York and two successful projects at Northwestern members also must reach agreements with existing projects in their University—formed the Innocence Network, a collaboration of region to determine how they will divvy up cases. Applicants like-minded organizations that could lean on each other for assis- receive provisional membership at first; then, after 18 months, the tance and know-how across professional and geographic lines. board can vote on a project’s permanent status. Membership since then has exploded. The network celebrated its a collective voice 10th anniversary in April with groups in practically every state along The network’s board also puts its combined heft into filing “friend with Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The growth of the court” or amicus briefs, using a collective voice to ask judges has stemmed in part from Scheck and Neufeld’s Johnny Appleseed to consider issues in a case’s background, such as the fallibility of approach, in which they encouraged professors, public defenders, and students to get involved. Theresa Newman, a clinical professor of confessions. Perhaps the network’s greatest impact has been to law at Duke University and former president of the network, says the identify errors before they become courtroom evidence. EyewitNorth Carolina effort began after Scheck and Neufeld lectured before ness identification, for example, is particularly problematic. Bain went to jail for three decades because of an eyewitness mistake. law students who then rallied professors to the cause. Bloodsworth almost died because of it. According to the Innocence In other instances, new laws and increasing demand for DNA Network, erroneous eyewitness identifications contributed to more testing practically forced the creation of a local Innocence Project. The Florida project that helped exonerate Bain, for example, started than 75 percent of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Led by the Innocence Project in New York, the network uses in 2003 with guidance from New York to handle an onslaught of these data to push for reforms, such as blind administrations of petitions to meet a state-mandated deadline for post-conviction DNA testing. Still, network members are only loosely tied. It wasn’t police lineups, in which the officer in charge is unaware of the suspect’s identity and therefore can’t accidentally steer results. Since until 2005 that the network created a board of directors, whose 18 members meet twice a year, mainly to discuss ongoing cases, review 2000, network members have helped convince legislators in New new members, and plan an annual conference, says Maddy deLone, Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Georgia to implement changes in eyewitness policies. executive director of the Innocence Project in New York. No group As important, the network’s lobbying efforts—and its track is legally bound to another. record of success—have pushed states to pass laws granting access Yet there’s no doubt the groups help each other. The network to post-conviction DNA testing. In 2000, only two states had such serves as a way to pool resources, connections, and expertise. laws, according to Eric Ferrero, director of communications for the Professors share lesson plans. Attorneys tracking down witnesses Innocence Project in New York. In 2010, 45 states and Washington, may ask for recommendations for investigators. And in crunch D.C., have such statutes. times, the network can offer backup support. Jeff Chinn, assistant The ideal, though, would be to go out of business one day, says director of the California Innocence Project in San Diego, recalls Findley. But improvements in technology mean there will always be when Innocence Project New Orleans sent an emergency request cases where DNA can be tested when once it couldn’t. There will for help meeting a filing deadline with the Louisiana Supreme always be cases where the defense didn’t think to look for DNA in trial. Court. The California project relayed the call to two San Diego And there will always be mistakes that have nothing to do with DNA. appellate lawyers, who jumped in. “I can’t imagine doing this work “As much as we’d like to work ourselves out of a job and have a in the relative darkness of our home states without communication perfect system, it’s a human system and humans make mistakes,” with each other,” says Newman. Although collaborative, each network member is responsible for Findley says. “Those mistakes will continue.” n 60

Stanford Social Innovation Review • Fall 2010

photograph BY Ryan Dexter, courtesy of Green for All

Action What Works

The Law of Networks: The Innocence Network grows rapidly and flexibly  

Article published in Fall 2010 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Written by Sam Scott and Jessie Speer.

The Law of Networks: The Innocence Network grows rapidly and flexibly  

Article published in Fall 2010 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Written by Sam Scott and Jessie Speer.