Take Action for Innocents in Pennsylvania

Welcome!  This site is maintained by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, an independent non-profit organization located at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The mission of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is to exonerate those who were convicted of crimes they did not commit, and to prevent innocent people from being convicted of crimes they did not do.

On this site, we have all the tools you will need to join our efforts to raise awareness about wrongful convictions in Pennsylvania.  Our goal is to encourage law enforcement to adopt best practices which will prevent wrongful convictions.  Legislation pending in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, would mandate these and other reforms.

First, understand Why Innocence Matters, then learn more about known best practices and how they would help protect all Pennsylvanians.

Next, take action!  By yourself or with friends, get busy and help spread the word.

Finally, keep the conversation going.  We will be providing Campaign updates through both Facebook and Twitter (@innocencepa), so make sure to follow us there.  Help spread the word by encouraging others to do the same, and comment on posts often to increase the dialogue.

Whether you put together a group to work together or take action on your own, everyone’s help is needed to bring Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system forward.  THANK YOU!

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Act to Support SB 1153: Because Innocence Must Never Be Time-Barred.

Under our current law, if an inmate learns of new evidence that wasn’t available before — like a witness who finally admits they lied at a trial, or a true perpetrator confessing to the crime — he must file a petition with his trial judge within 60 days after he learns the new facts.  If he misses this deadline by even one day, he can never have that evidence heard by a court.  Never. Dozens of inmates have contacted the Pennsylvania Innocence Project after they missed this deadline but there is nothing we can do to help them.

A bill pending in Harrisburg would change all that. Pennsylvania SB 1153 would provide innocent inmates a fair shot at proving their innocence in court by eliminating the current 60-day time limit on asserting a wrongful conviction claim when new evidence becomes known.

As Senator Greenleaf has said,

Eliminating the 60-day rule is the only fair thing to do.  When there’s a claim of actual innocence accompanied by some credible evidence, there shouldn’t be any time limit. I don’t see how anyone can argue about that.

On our companion site, NoBar4Innocence, you will find much more information about SB 1153 and what we are doing to raise awareness and support its passage.  Although passing this legislation would not prevent wrongful convictions, it would give those who have been wrongfully convicted a fair shot at righting this horrible injustice.   Visit NoBar4Innocence and help the convicted innocent today.

Why Innocence Matters

To date, 12 people have been released from Pennsylvania prisons when DNA testing proved their innocence. These men collectively spent 139 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. In 2 of those cases, police have identified the true perpetrator of the crime; the remainder are unsolved. Of course wrongful convictions stop at no state borders. There are 342 DNA exonerations across the nation. In 45% of these cases, the process of settling the innocence claim resulted in the identification of the true perpetrator of those crimes.

Tragically, the perpetrators of these heinous crimes committed many additional crimes while the innocent languished behind bars.  Nationwide this includes more than 60 sex assaults and 24 murders. This data probably only begins to tell the larger story of all of the crimes that were actually committed in that these were only known convictions. When we convict the wrong person, all of us are harmed.

  • Making our system safer for the innocent does not mean making it easier for the guilty.
  • Law enforcement agencies all over the country are voluntarily adopting measures to ensure evidence is accurate and reliable.
  • The updates proposed are developed based upon principles derived from 30 years of social science research.
  • It’s not a matter of blaming police or prosecutors, but adapting law enforcement and investigations to modern best practices.
  • DNA exonerations are only a tip of the iceberg, as criminalists estimate that DNA is only present in 10-17% of all serious felony cases. Non-DNA cases involve the same potential for wrongful conviction—eyewitness misidentification, forensic science inaccuracies, false confessions, misuse of government informants—as DNA cases do.

We know how to ensure accuracy and reliability in our investigations.  Now is the time to make the change, to protect all of us and restore confidence in our criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania’s Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions

Created in 2006 by the legislature to explore the causes of wrongful conviction and initiated by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery/Bucks), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions was charged with reviewing Pennsylvania’s wrongful conviction cases and identifying the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction.  Last fall, the Committee issued a report calling for comprehensive updates to our criminal justice system to prevent the tragedy of wrongfully convicting innocent people.   Download the full report.  The day the report was released, 14 members of the 52-member body issued an Independent Report, calling the measures proposed by the Committee “roadblocks to justice … designed solely to benefit criminal defendants.”

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which was not part of the Advisory Committee process, issued a White Paper addressing the proposals from the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions report and the objections raised by minority dissenters.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which was not part of the Advisory Committee process, supports most of the Advisory Committee’s recommendations. However, in some areas, further reforms are necessary to ensure fair proceedings and to protect against wrongful convictions. Toward that end, the Project suggests additional proposals, as outlined in the White Paper.

Since the Report’s publication, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has been working directly with law enforcement agencies to encourage the adoption of best practices in eyewitness identification procedures and recording of suspect interrogations.  While we firmly believe that voluntary adoption of these proposals by law enforcement is by far the best avenue for reform, there are other reforms which can only be accomplished through legislation such as compensating the wrongfully convicted and requiring accreditation of forensic science laboratories.

The recommendations in the Advisory Committee’s report have now been introduced as legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, backed by Chairman Stewart Greenleaf.  Those bills, SB 1337 and SB 1338, are before  the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting public hearings.

Spreading the Word: Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

Getting the word out through the available media is an important part of supporting innocence protection reforms in Pennsylvania.  There are small papers all over the Commonwealth that would support an op-ed or guest editorial where a larger publication may reject it.

When composing Letters, there are a few guidelines to follow:
  • Keep it BRIEF!  Most papers will only consider letters that are 200 words or fewer.
  • Respond directly either to new news or an article published in the previous day or two.
  • Focus on one point; don’t try to address many issues in one letter.
  • DON’T DEMONIZE.  Our Project is not about blame; our message is that wrongful conviction aren’t about bad actors but  unreliable methods.
  • Focus on one important point (don’t try to address separate issues in one letter).  Some facts on wrongful convictions and points for letters are compiled here as Points for Op-Eds and Letters.
  • Point people to a source for more information or to engage in action, preferably the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and this website.
  • E-mail your letter in the body of the email (never send unsolicited attachments ) and put “Letter re: your topic or article name ” in the subject line.
  • Include your address and daytime phone number for verification.

Many papers prefer on-line submissions, so check the paper’s web-site.  Here are a few that have online forms for submission:

Op-eds are simply longer letters.  Many papers will accept op-eds submitted by readers; just call the editorial board or check on the website for their individual guidelines.  We prepared a Sample Full Op-Ed covering the major issues in the proposals for reference.  (You should choose just one area to focus on.)

After submitting a letter, follow up in a few days with a polite letter if you do not hear anything. If the letter is published, please let us know through Facebook, or by sending us an e-mail.

Work with Friends: Host a Letter Writing Party

It is very easy to organize a letter writing event to support our efforts.    Letters can be written to papers as Letters to the Editor or Op-Eds.

Just get your group together, and get started.  Here are some materials designed to make it easy for you.  Use them as a guide in framing the issues, and drawing attention to the problems of wrongful convictions.

As always, when writing letters in support of the reforms, do not demonize!  The Pennsylvania Innocence Project does not believe in blaming anyone for wrongful convictions; the issue is not bad actors, but unreliable methods.   Please don’t accuse individuals or groups of people of misconduct.  We want to raise awareness, not create barriers.

If you are writing Letters to the Editor, choose a paper in your home area.  Local letters are more likely to be published than out of towners.   Check out Spreading the Word: Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor, above on this site.  Follow the directions for the particular paper.

When you have your letters ready, you can submit them by mail or through electronic mail.  Snail mail is preferred, because it guarantees that the letter will actually be opened.  If submitting by e-mail, send the whole message in the body of the e-mail, not as a separate attachment (they will think it’s spam).

Keep track of to whom you send letters, and let us know at the Project office.  When you hear back, let us know that, too!

Host a Community Event

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project will work with you to put together a program for your religious institution, community group or school.  We have Power Point presentations, videos, and other interactive ways to present on issues related to wrongful convictions.

To have the Project staff help you put together an informative and interesting presentation, contact us by e-mail, or by phone at 215-204-4255.