Co-founders Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and Linda Starr had both already worked for years in criminal justice in a variety of settings, including as trial and appellate lawyers, when they took on the cases that would become NCIP’s earliest exonerations. With volunteer staff and law students from an existing criminal law clinic, they launched NCIP officially in 2001, in part to respond to the passage of California Penal Code section 1405, which for the first time authorized convicted inmates to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence. That statute provided a vehicle to discover the existence of previously undetected wrongful convictions, and raised the probability of successful post-conviction litigation.
NCIP receives more than 1,500 letters each year from inmates and family members about new or existing cases. Approximately 500 of those letters are new requests for assistance. NCIP reads and responds to every letter it receives.
We have a rigorous case screening process to determine which cases we take. The process starts when we receive a letter from an inmate asking for help. We receive more than 1,500 letters each year. We respond to each letter, and for new cases that meet our case criteria, we send our intake questionnaire to the inmate, which allows them to provide us with key information about their case. Our staff reviews the completed questionnaires and, where appropriate, obtains additional documentation about the conviction. We may review police reports (where these are available), transcripts and prior legal briefing. At that point, cases that continue to hold promise are assigned to an NCIP staff attorney for more thorough investigation. That investigation may include some or all of the following: interviewing witnesses who have new information; locating physical evidence for forensic or DNA testing; and consulting with experts about potential errors in forensic, medical, or police practices that may have contributed to a wrongful conviction. If we find compelling evidence of factual innocence, we share our findings and attempt to resolve the case through discussion with prosecutors (the best case scenario). Sometimes, however, we need to initiate litigation to overturn the conviction. We currently have approximately 50 active cases pending in various stages of investigation and litigation.
Where we believe there may be a case of innocence, we investigate thoroughly. The nature of the investigation is determined by the specific evidence in the case. In every case the evidence is different. Some cases are driven by witness statements, while others are largely based on forensic evidence. The investigative process is meticulous and can take a long time. Of the many cases which come into our pipeline, we only proceed to litigation in the few cases in which the investigation discloses compelling evidence of actual innocence.
In order to have your case considered by NCIP, you must meet all of the following criteria: 1) you must be actually innocent of the crimes for which you have been convicted; 2) There must be a significant chance that substantial new evidence may be found to support your claim of innocence; and 3) you must have been convicted of a serious felony in the one of the 48 Northern and Central California counties from Monterey, Kings, Tulare and Inyo County up to the Oregon border. To see more about how to apply for help and more details about NCIP’s case eligibility criteria click here.
People often get us confused. The Innocence Project in New York is one of a network of Innocence Projects throughout the US and abroad working to exonerate innocent people. It was the first Innocence Project in the US and is the largest, often working on national level initiatives. NCIP and The Innocence Project are independent organizations but we are both active members of the Innocence Network. We are colleagues who share information and refer cases to one another where appropriate. NCIP also frequently works with the Innocence Project on policy issues, such as supporting California or federal legislative efforts.
NCIP is a project of the Santa Clara University School of Law. NCIP staff are employees of the law school, however NCIP raises its own funds and administers its own budget. Several NCIP staff hold faculty appointments at SCU Law. The NCIP law clinic is run by NCIP and is a year-long course offered by SCU Law. SCU undergraduates with an interest in the law often serve as volunteer interns at NCIP.
NCIP is one of the founding members of the Innocence Network, a collective of independently-run innocence organizations across the United States and abroad. We share information through an electronic network and email lists, and support one another’s efforts to exonerate the innocent and pursue policy changes to prevent wrongful convictions in a variety of ways. NCIP staff serves on the Executive Board of the Innocence Network, and we assist in the planning of and participation in national and regional conferences, symposia, and public education efforts.
NCIP runs a year-long clinical program in which students enroll and receive credit for working with NCIP staff attorneys on cases and policy issues. NCIP’s clinical program is one of the top programs in the nation. Nearly 800 Santa Clara Law students have graduated from NCIP since 2001. NCIP’s clinical students master key lawyering skills while also developing a clear sense of their ethical obligations as future lawyers. To learn more about the NCIP law clinic, click here.
NCIP is funded by more than 500 individual, foundation, government and corporate funders each year. Gifts and grants range in size from $5 to more than $500,000. NCIPs funding comes from a variety of sources but roughly breaks down into the following categories: donated goods and services 65%; individual contributions 10%; government grants 9%; SCU Law 7%; private foundations 8%; endowment interest 1%. We receive more than $3 million in in-kind pro bono services from lawyers, investigators and other service providers. To donate to NCIP, click here.
NCIP’s core mission is to create a fair, effective, and compassionate criminal justice system and to exonerate the innocent. As such, in addition to our case work, we seek to advance policy issues that are relevant to preventing wrongful convictions, supporting exonerees, and reforming the criminal justice system as a whole. This take various forms: from state and federal legislative efforts, to public education symposia, to trainings we conduct for police departments, public defender offices, and other entities.
The most common causes that contribute to wrongful convictions include eyewitness error, false testimony (by snitches or other witnesses), false confessions, faulty forensics or reliance upon “junk science,” official misconduct, and ineffective representation by defense attorneys.
Underlying nearly all wrongful convictions is some form of cognitive bias that distracts the investigators, prosecutors, and/or defense attorneys from seeing real flaws in the evidence. Sometimes people are convinced that a particular person committed the crime or that evidence points in a particular direction. When there are conflicting facts or evidence which potentially shows a different story, sometimes investigators or attorneys don’t allow themselves (consciously or unconsciously) to revise their assumptions which may lead to a different person being identified as the perpetrator. For example, many eyewitness misidentifications result from police using outdated identification practices that can unintentionally lead a witness to select the person the police already suspect of committing the crime. When the police’s suspect is NOT the actual perpetrator, however, such unintentional influence can result in an innocent person getting convicted.
Our educational efforts are focused on raising awareness of the ways in which cognitive bias can influence witness identifications, how witnesses or suspects are questioned, and even the results of forensic testing. We rely upon current scientific research into best practices in law enforcement procedures and forensics, in our efforts to educate law students, law enforcement professionals, and the public.
Every case is different and the time it takes to exonerate a client depends upon the nature of the evidence, the age of the case, the difficulty in locating relevant documents, physical evidence, and/or witnesses. Cases have taken from just over a year to nearly 18 years for us to exonerate a client.
No. We rely upon all forms of investigation, including witness interviews, to investigate innocence claims. Only a small number of cases have DNA evidence which can be tested. However, there may be other forensic evidence that is questionable, such as the use of “bite mark” or “hair comparison” evidence. NCIP relies upon experts in a variety of scientific and medical disciplines to help interpret the evidence used at trial and to determine whether new evidence can be found that demonstrates that the wrong person was convicted or that the crime did not happen in the way it was presented at the time of trial.
The costs of each case vary, but it is expensive. In addition to the core costs of lawyers, most cases involve paid investigators who, while discounting their rates to work with NCIP, spend countless hours tracking down witnesses and finding evidence. In addition, paid experts are often critical to our cases. Experts help to analyze evidence and may testify at trial. Their fees are often several hundred dollars per hour. Where DNA is available for testing, tests can cost between $1500 – $5000 each. In addition, there are many smaller costs which add up quickly including copying fees for thousands of pages of transcripts or court records. As our cases are drawn from counties throughout Northern and Central California, travel costs are also significant. As expensive as our cases are, they are still extremely cost effective. To make a donation to offset the costs of exonerating an innocent person, click here.
At this point, the State of California provides no specific services to exonerees, and the limited services offered to parolees are not extended to the innocent, whose convictions have been vacated, rather than fully served. Depending on the length of incarceration, exonerees need a variety of services. They need to locate housing and transportation. They often have urgent medical and dental needs. They need employment or job training, counseling, and emotional support.
By law, California exonerees can apply for compensation from the State for the time that they spent wrongfully incarcerated. In most cases, this requires an application (entirely separate from the legal case that resulted in a court order vacating the conviction), supported by proof that the person is actually innocent. State compensation is limited to $140 per day wrongfully incarcerated (up from $100 per day thanks to NCIP co-sponsored successful California Senate Bill 635, adopted in 2015). Compensation is not, however, automatic and historically, a fairly arbitrary administrative procedure resulted in many exonerees being denied compensation, even when the prosecutors in their cases conceded innocence. Recent legislative reform, supported by NCIP policy efforts, is intended to prevent such unfair outcomes in the future.
No one knows how many innocent people are in prison. Since 1989, however, more than 250 wrongful convictions have been vacated in California. The costs to the state of wrongful convictions have been estimated at more than $129 million, including the costs of incarceration and compensation, and not including the cost of the post-conviction litigation.
NCIP relies on individual donations. Your gift of any size is deeply appreciated. NCIP is part of Santa Clara University (Santa Clara University’s Tax ID: 94-1156617). Donations by check should be made payable to “Northern California Innocence Project” and mailed to NCIP’s office at the address below. To make an online donation, click here.
Northern California Innocence Project
500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053