History & Accomplishments
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, 316 Americans have been exonerated based on DNA testing, and more than 1,000 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 prevent and correct wrongful convictions in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Working with pro bono lawyers, student interns and externs, and affiliated classes or clinics at three area law schools, MAIP provides investigative and legal assistance to wrongfully convicted individuals 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. Over the past several years, MAIP’s success has improved dramatically, growing to a staff of six and securing 16 victories on behalf of innocent clients since 2008 – nine of them in the past three years alone.
MAIP has received thousands 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 assigned to staff attorneys, who coordinate investigations with our staff attorney or law school clinics or externs, as appropriate. 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. MAIP has successfully worked with coalitions that have implemented legislation: in the District of Columbia that has required the recording of interrogations and improved the access to DNA testing in the Innocence Protection Act; in Maryland that requires improved eyewitness identification procedures, has required oversight of state crime laboratories, and that recommends the recording of interrogations in serious crimes; and in Virginia that has lowered the standard necessary for defendants to prevail in Petitions for a Writ of Actual Innocence.
Finally, MAIP prides itself on its ability to work hand-in-hand with law enforcement and prosecutors in many of its cases. Because of our rigorous case-selection process and collaborative approach, we have successfully convinced many prosecutors that our clients are innocent and that they should join in our requests to have those convictions vacated. This is because, at its core, MAIP’s work is about seeking the truth and about ensuring that the criminal justice system is as accurate as possible – a mission that everyone can and should support.