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Exonerating Wrongful Convictions: Iowa’s Innocence Project Forges New Partnerships

Emily Woodbury
Iowa Public Radio
The prison yard at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison

Before the 1980s, we assumed that wrongful convictions were rare. Then came Peter Neufeld and the Innocence Project. Through DNA testing, Neufeld and his organization have helped to exonerate more than 300 people of crimes they were wrongfully convicted of committing.

“We thought we could look at old cases where people were tried on other evidence like eye-witness testimony and test the hypothesis of innocence,” he says.

During this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Neufeld who is giving this year’s Bucksbaum lecture at Drake University on Tuesday, October 27th at 7:00 p.m.

Neufeld says the release of the first person he worked to exonerate is fresh in his memory.

“Our first case was a case down in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a rape case, and we thought that the victim had made a misidentification. When she was taken to the hospital, her rape kit was well prepared, so it was well maintained. And we tested the DNA and found that my client was not guilty. I got a call from the governor who said that he was going to be exonerated,” Neufeld remembers. He says its not just the person sentenced who are affected by wrongful convictions, but their siblings, fathers, and mothers.

“I flew down Virginia, and when I got off the plane, all of a sudden this very large woman came running across the pavement on the tarmac, and she lifted me off the pavement and gave me a hug.”

There is going to come a day when we walk someone out of prison who has spent time in prison for something they didn't do. - Adam Gregg

Iowa State Public Defender Adam Gregg and Brian Farrell, who serves as president of Iowa’s chapter of the Innocence Project, also join the conversation to talk about wrongful conviction, witness misidentification, and criminal justice reform.

Iowa’s State Public Defender’s office islaunching a new wrongful conviction unit to investigate more than 100 cases they’ve identified to be re-examined. There has not been an exoneration due to DNA evidence in Iowa to date, but Gregg and Farrell say they are both confident that’s just because that state has not systematically reviewed cases in the past.

“There is going to come a day when we walk someone out of prison who has spent time in prison for something they didn’t do,” says Gregg. 

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River