I've been involved in several innocence cases, and have been fortunate enough to be successful. I've also had a lot more where I have not been so lucky - people who I have no doubt are innocence, but cannot prove that in a court. I say lucky, because that is what you have to be. It is not enough to be innocent - you have to catch a lot of breaks.
Jeff Gamso pointed this out in the course of discussing a recently published book by Kirk Bloodsworth. Mr. Bloodsworth is somewhat famous among lawyers who handle innocence cases. He got off of death row through DNA testing, and then spent 9 more years trying to get the State to test the evidence and prove who actually committed the offense.
The instructive part of the story is what has to go right in a case like this. As Jeff writes:
What Kirk Bloodsworth needed was for random chance to go his way. Someone in a lab needed to find a spot of semen in a spot that FBI analysts specifically declared did not exist. Ultimately it did. He needed the DNA to not be degraded. He needed there to be enough for a retest. He needed a whole shitload of stuff to go right. Not right because the law would make it go right or because hard work would make it go right or because really good lawyers would make it go right. To go right because by chance it did.
Mr. Bloodsworth also recognizes that one more thing is necessary - he had to have a lawyer who was interested in his case - and who wouldn't give up. Unfortunately, there are far too lawyers like that. Far too many lawyers are interested only in how much money they can make. If a client doesn't have money, they aren't going to even look at it. You don't make money on cases like this - you actually lose money - a lot. They are extremely time consuming, and require resources that many lawyers pay for out of their pocket. They do it because they can't look the other away - they see an injustice and feel compelled to fix it. In short, the represent the finest traditions of the bar.
Over the last several years there has been an increase in the number of innocence projects - which offer the only meaningful chance for relief most defendants. Unfortunately, there are too few of them, and they are always underfunded. In short, they are overwhelmed - and have to allocate their resources to have the most impact. - which often means rejecting cases that are going to require a lot of time and money, and where innocence may not be so clear.
We need to do better to correct mistakes when they are made. Relief should never be left to random chance. The entire justice system bears some responsibility for this - and its time for everyone to step up to the plate.