History and Organization
In 1989, Gary Dotson became the first person to be exonerated through DNA testing, which proved that he did not commit the rape for which he had been convicted. Since then, 305 Americans have been exonerated based on DNA testing, and hundreds more have been exonerated based on other conclusive evidence of innocence. This wave of exonerations has fostered a new awareness among policymakers and the public that the criminal justice system is failing at one of its most critical functions: the reliable conviction of the guilty and exoneration of the innocent.
In 2000, a group of District of Columbia attorneys concluded that recent, high-profile exonerations in this region signaled shortcomings in our area's criminal justice systems that required local response. They formed the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) to identify and correct wrongful convictions in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia and to advocate for systemic changes that can prevent these injustices from happening in the future. Working with pro bono lawyers, private investigators, and affiliated classes or clinics at six area law schools, MAIP provides investigative and legal assistance to indigent prisoners whose innocence can be proven by DNA testing or by other newly discovered evidence.
For the first several years of its existence, MAIP was a shoestring operation, working with a volunteer Executive Director or only one employee for nearly six years. Despite this lack of resources, in 2001, MAIP secured the DNA exoneration of Marvin Anderson, a wrongfully convicted Virginia man who had served 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. In 2005, MAIP released A Vision for Justice, a report of the Innocence Commission of Virginia (ICVA). The ICVA investigated 11 Virginia cases in which innocent persons had been convicted and exonerated, analyzed the causes of those wrongful convictions, and recommended reforms to Virginia law designed to prevent such convictions from occurring in the future.
Over the past four years, MAIP has gradually professionalized its operations, hiring an Executive Director with extensive experience in the area of wrongful convictions in 2005 and an Assistant Director with several years of experience as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in 2006. In the past two years, we also have hired a Program Assistant and a Virginia DNA Staff Attorney. A larger staff has enabled MAIP to improve even more, and the organization has been involved in five exonerations in the past 15 months. We also have been involved in significant policy developments in Maryland involving eyewitness identification procedures, the videotaping of interrogations, and crime lab reform. Our increased professionalization also has led to the development of many new cases that may lead to exonerations in the next two years.
MAIP has received more than 6,000 requests for assistance from prisoners who claim they are innocent. That direct assistance is the core of MAIP's work and mission. MAIP's staff works with a screening committee of pro bono lawyers to carefully screen each request, determining: (1) whether the prisoner might be innocent; and (2) whether DNA testing or a factual investigation could prove that claim. Potentially meritorious cases are referred our affiliated law school programs or private investigators for investigation. When compelling evidence of innocence is uncovered, MAIP teams up with pro bono attorneys as co-counsel on each case.
MAIP also engages in policy and public education initiatives designed to encourage simple, commonsense reforms to improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system and to prevent future wrongful convictions. Over the past few years, MAIP's Executive Director has testified on behalf of legislation in Maryland that would mandate the electronic recording of all police interrogations; legislation in Maryland that would change procedures for conducting eyewitness lineups and photo arrays to make them more accurate; and legislation in the District of Columbia that would improve eyewitness identifications.