Project seeks the innocent
Founded by UH law professor David Dow, the Texas Innocence Network is one of many nationwide organizations devoted to investigating allegations of wrongly incarcerated individuals.
Since its inception in March 2000 the project has received more than 5,000 cases with the help of law students who have learned to interview witnesses, review records and reconstruct crime scenes.
"The students who work as part of the UH innocence project are the real engine of TIN," Dow said.
The project is based on a 1992 model from the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, created by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The project arose from the annual Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Conference in 1999, Dow said.
"A group of law professors, lawyers from around the state and community activists were talking after the annual meeting about the need to have a program like this in Texas," he said. "In addition, Texas’ prison population is second only to California, and we didn’t have one."
Upon returning to the law school, Dow contacted law students about starting the innocence program and asked those who were interested to contact him.
Dow said he expected a handful of people to respond, but received more than 60 responses instead.
Despite the initial interest, the organization went through a period of inactivity because all of the participants were busy.
While months passed with low activity, Dow said the students became restless, and he decided to put them on four active cases he was working on.
"Those first students really wanted to work on those cases," Dow said. "They weren’t getting any money, they weren’t getting any class credit, they weren’t getting anything except the satisfaction of doing the job that they thought was an important job to do."
Gradually, the word began circulating among the prison population that an innocence project was being run at the University – though that information wasn’t quite accurate. No one informed the prison population that the "innocence project" was limited only to the four appointed cases.
Soon, Dow began receiving mail from the general prison population and not just death row inmates, including those in neighboring Louisiana and Arkansas, which lack innocence projects.
By summer 2000, Dow was spending half his time opening mail, reading letters and responding to requests, which led him to hire a student researcher. Based on templates he created, the student evaluated letters and put the information into a database.
As others became aware of the work he was doing, he began receiving grants to support his work. One of his first was from the Houston Law Foundation. He credits former Law Center Dean Nancy B. Rapoport with helping the project with financial assistance.
"She was supportive right from the beginning, and her successor (current Dean) Ray Nimmer continues to be supportive," he said.
In addition to the grant funding the Law Foundation provides to the project, Dow receives funding from philanthropists, private donations and the Texas Legislature.
Those funds now employ four full-time lawyers who handle the approximate 1,000 cases the project processes per year. Every semester, an average of 15 students assist the lawyers in handling the caseloads.