The Innocence Files attorneys talk fighting wrongful convictions and systemic racism
At this very moment, there are countless wrongly convicted people serving time in prisons across the United States, awaiting a chance to prove their innocence.
Attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, founders of the New York-based Innocence Project, have been fighting to exonerate such people since 1992 and are the inspiration for Netflix's latest true-crime documentary, The Innocence Files (streaming now). The pair recently spoke to EW about the subjects featured in the nine-episode series and why the American legal system needs to do a better job investigating and trying cases to ensure justice is always served.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Many of the cases featured in The Innocence Files are those of black and Latino people. Is this a coincidence, or is it representative of something bigger?
PETER NEUFELD: One of the things that's true about our cases is that a disproportionate number of people exonerated, compared to their presence in criminal justice or their population in the U.S., is that they're heavily disproportionately weighted toward people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people. Too many of the people that we've exonerated are, in particular, young black men wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting white women at a much higher rate than white men are. And those numbers are contrary to rates published by the Department of Justice, specifically that most assaults occur within a race — black men assaulting black women or white men assaulting white women. Almost 55 percent of our cases involve black men wrongly convicted of assaulting white women, and you can see the injustices in those cases in how they were initially investigated, how they were held without bail, and in the fact that more cases of wrongful convictions were present in their trials. They get longer sentences and are more difficult to get parole. We even see it in how long it takes us to clear them. On average, it takes us four years longer to clear somebody of color who was actually innocent than it does for us to clear somebody who was white.
The Innocence Files features examples of experts and law enforcement officials who were downright deceitful, like Dr. Michael West. What happens to them when someone is exonerated?
NEUFELD: You know, they're not just individuals. What we see when we look at all of the cases and we deconstruct them for patterns, what emerges are patterns that indicate somebody like Michael West is not just an outlier. But there are 50 other forensic odontologists who falsely claim they've found matches when there aren't any, which leads to the conviction of innocent people. So it's not just Michael West, it's the whole field.
BARRY SCHECK: West is some extraordinary character. The craziest thing about him, which is covered in the doc, is that he was exposed years ago. Even the bite-mark people took him out of the bite-mark association, which is not even a validated science in our view.
NEUFELD: Nothing happens to them as individuals, unfortunately. There's very little accountability. But what we do at the Innocence Project is to try to come up with reforms that will reduce the risk of people like West wrongfully convicting other people, [and] prosecutors who believe in winning at any cost from prosecuting in the future. And we try to improve the way eyewitness identifications are conducted to reduce misidentification. We've had more than 220 statutes passed around the country to bring about and implement some of those reforms. We still have a long way to go, but the hope is the more people who watch the show, they'll want to get involved.
Some of the exonerated people in the documentary received cash settlements, but the amount varies. Someone like Levon Brooks didn't even live long enough to enjoy his paltry amount.
SCHECK: Levon did not live long enough, but the amount wasn't even that much. How much money would you accept to give up years of your life to live in prison? And the prison where Levon was held used to be a plantation before it was a prison. The people who are doing their time there are doing forced labor like picking cotton as if it were still a plantation. Not only did Levon not live long enough to enjoy the amount he got, but Kennedy Brewer gets out and the only job he can get was working midnight to 8 a.m. cleaning fecal matter on a chicken farm, and later doing the same on a catfish farm. His mother, who was in the documentary, died recently. As he was mourning her death, Kenny had a stroke a week ago and now can't even go back to that horrible job. This man was months away from being executed for something he didn't do! If his story touched viewers, we're crowdsourcing to help him get back on his feet.
Any chance you'd highlight more of your cases in a second season?
SCHECK: I hope the documentary is well received. The consulting fees that Peter and I get for this go right into the network support unit. We really hope that these stories will have a real impact. The filmmakers were great at doing a deep dive into areas where they can tell great stories but at the same time get to the bottom of complex issues that we need to address in order to reform the criminal justice system. We're told Netflix makes decisions on more seasons fairly early, so we need everyone to watch.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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