Innocence Project Case Director Huy Dao is featured in a Q & A in this month’s issue of the Cornell University alumni magazine. Dao has managed the intake and evaluation process at the Innocence Project for more than a decade, reading thousands of letters from inmates and evaluating their cases for possible representation. The Innocence Project gets about 250 new requests for legal help each month, and there are 7,000 cases in some stage of evaluation. Here’s an excerpt from his interview with the magazine:
What's your process for answering (requests)?
First we evaluate the case to see if it can be resolved by DNA. If it might be, or if we don't have enough information, we send the defendant a questionnaire about defense and prosecution theory, as well as what evidence was collected, what might be tested, what documents they have, who represented them, things like that.
Why did the project choose DNA as its standard?
It's a level of investigation that can be done from one place but still have nationwide scope. We can't go out and interview all of the witnesses in any given case, in any given jurisdiction. With DNA we can locate the evidence, have it tested, and do the litigation without putting resources on the ground.
How has this work shaped your view of the criminal justice system?
I don't know how anyone can not see that the system is fraught with potential for human error. As much as race and class shouldn't affect a system that is designed to be fair, we see that they do— both in targeting an investigation and in rates of incarceration. People are always asking me questions like, "How many innocent people are in prison?" I don't know, but there are over two million people in prison, and if 1 percent are innocent, you have tens of thousands. A 1 percent error rate—which would be good in any other system—is very disturbing.
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