Wake Forest launches Innocence Project

by Amy Kingsley

Last year Winston-Salem’s DNA Screening Committee – formed in the aftermath of Darryl Hunt’s exoneration – sent letters to prisoners from Forsyth County inviting them to apply for a review of their cases.

The committee was flooded with replies. There were so many – more than 200, in fact – that the Forsyth County Bar Association enlisted the help of the Wake Forest University School of Law. Students and professors at the school, who had been considering starting an Innocence Project for years, decided to launch one this year. They will undertake the DNA reviews as their first assignment.

This year students at the school will work with prosecutors from the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office and supervising attorneys from the bar association to wade through the backlog of requests. The project, which is an extracurricular activity for students, held its first meeting on Oct. 2. What makes the DNA screening initiative unique among Innocence Projects is the cooperation of prosecutors and law enforcement.

“We aren’t going into this with only the resources that are usually available to defense lawyers,” said Ron Wright, associate dean of academic affairs.

The push to review these criminal cases really came from the district attorney’s office, said Richard Gottlieb, president of the bar association.

“There was a real acknowledgment by the DA’s office that they should give prisoners the benefit of advanced DNA screening technology,” Gottlieb said.

To qualify for the DNA screening, a prisoner must have committed a crime involving blood or tissue evidence, pled “not guilty” and be currently incarcerated.

“Typically what happens with these projects is that there are a lot more claims of innocence than there are ones that have merit to them,” Wright said.

To date, projects across the country, many of which operate out of law schools, have exonerated 208 wrongly convicted prisoners, according to the Innocence Project website. Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem native, spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Hunt now heads an organization that provides assistance to former convicts and those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence already coordinates Innocence Projects at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC Central University and Campbell University. After the students finish the initial DNA screening project, the Innocence Project at Wake Forest will continue to evaluate claims of innocence based on different kinds of evidence. The Forsyth County Bar Association will continue to supervise the students during future investigations, Gottlieb said.

“Students are great to work with,” he said. “They are very enthusiastic and they have time. I see the bar association being very active in the Innocence Project.”