A decade after starting the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic in New York City, Barry Scheck ’71 has helped exonerate 114 falsely imprisoned men and women, many of whom were on death row.
At a Davenport College Master’s Tea Nov. 6, Scheck spoke about his work with the project and explained “The Central Park Jogger” case, in which several young teenagers languished in prison for 13 years because of false confessions elicited by police.
When Scheck, who worked on the defense team in the O.J. Simpson trial, entered the Davenport common room, the background swelled with sounds of the audience’s discussion and analysis of the previous day’s election results. As he took his seat, Scheck began by attempting to lighten the mood. Turning to Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71, a former classmate, Scheck proudly displayed his Davenport pin, looked around the common room and said, “This feels like home.”
Scheck began by reading a Providence Journal article that highlighted an arrest in which the true criminal stepped forward after authorities had already apprehended a different suspect. In doing so, Scheck set a clear tone: false arrests and false confessions are far too common an occurrence in the American criminal justice system.
The “Central Park Jogger” case began in April, 1989, when two groups of young men from housing projects in Harlem committed a series of acts of vandalism and minor assaults in Central Park. Later that evening, police discovered the body of a young woman in the park. The woman had been raped and was near death. Immediately, the police accused the group of young men of the rape and forced a confession from the young men, who knew no details of the crime.
Thirteen years later, convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes came forward and declared that he raped the Central Park jogger alone. Overall, Scheck said he believes that the authorities displayed severe close-mindedness in handling the case, and he pointed to the example as evidence of a dangerous trend in law enforcement.
“There is a powerful tendency we all have to look for beliefs and evidence that confirm our hypotheses,” Scheck said. “People need to learn to think outside the box of their own tunnel vision.”
The young men accused of the rape demonstrated no remorse when signing their confessions — a fact that enraged the public and turned the case into a “cause celebre.” The entire fiasco and similar events would have been prevented if a video camera recorded all interrogations, Scheck said. In fact, legislation mandating video cameras in interrogation rooms is one of Scheck’s primary goals.
“How many of these cases does it take before we realize that we owe it to the public to prevent false confessions?” Scheck said. “Fair minded people all over the country would be for [cameras in interrogation rooms].”
Kevin Abels ’05, co-coordinator of the Yale Coalition to End the Death Penalty, said he thinks Scheck’s campaign to get cameras in interrogation rooms is an integral part of justice system reform.
“I think the videotaping is a really good way to ensure that innocent people aren’t sent to prison,” Abels said. “I think that’s a step towards getting there, but we need to make sure that we’ll keep reforming the criminal justice system because even when almost everyone thinks everything is working fine, it’s not.”
Schottenfeld said he was impressed by Scheck’s open mind and consistent innovation.
“He’s involved in some extremely important efforts to reform criminal cases, to improve the system,” Schottenfeld said. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear and think about what this extraordinarily creative thinker had to say.”