By Theresa Agovino (Crain’s New York Business) – The Innocence Project received a $1 million donation—its largest ever—from the Pershing Square Foundation. The money will help the Innocence Project expand its core mission of exonerating wrongly convicted people through DNA evidence by funding efforts to change some of the police practices that can lead to unjust verdicts.
“This is major,” said Maddy deLone, the Innocence Project’s executive director. “We are going to be able to scale up in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”
Ms. deLone said the organization knew the money was coming so it already has hired about seven new people for the effort. The Pershing Square Foundation, which made the grant in December, has been a previous funder; it was founded by the New York hedge fund honcho William Ackman and his wife, Karen.
Mistaken eyewitness testimony is a major factor in 75% of the wrongly convicted cases, Ms. deLone noted, while false confessions are a contributing cause in 25% of such cases. She said there are ways to reduce such mistakes and the Innocence Project has been trying to get police departments and state legislatures to alter procedures to avoid them. The foundation grant can’t be used for political lobbying, however, so the new hires at the Innocence Project will work with police departments. It will allow the foundation to start working on this effort in three new states bringing the total to 11.
One effort will try to persuade police departments to set policies that keep arresting officers from being involved in suspect line-ups because the officers may suggest—intentionally or inadvertently—a suspect’s identity to a witness. Similarly, witnesses could be informed that the criminal may not even be in the line-up, reducing pressure to make an identification.
The Innocence Project has also been trying to get more police departments to tape interrogations so there is a record to see if police behavior may have contributed to people wrongly taking responsibility for a crime.
“We’ve known what the reforms are, but now we can try to scale up so can work to have them adopted,” Ms. deLone said.
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. It became an independent nonprofit in 2004, although it is still closely associated with the university. Since its founding, 302 people have been exonerated by DNA testing and it has worked on more than half those cases.
The Foundation, started in 2006 by Mr. and Mrs. Ackman, has committed more than $160 million since its inception in the areas of economic development, education, healthcare, human rights, the arts and urban development. Among its missions is to support organizations that help create social change.
“The Innocence Project has had the ability to transform lives on a case by case basis but this is an opportunity to change the criminal justice system for the better,” said Paul Bernstein, the foundation’s chief executive officer. Additionally, he noted that Mr. Ackman is also drawn to organizations that fight to right wrongs for those who can’t do it for themselves.
Mr. Ackman was famously investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York’s attorney general when he was shorting municipal bond insurer MBIA. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him and he cleared his name while earning $150 million from his investment that he donated to charity.
Correction: Mr. Ackman donated the $150 million he earned from short selling MBIA to charities including The Pershing Square Foundation. That fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article published Feb. 8, 2013.
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