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Rutgers University Pioneers New Jersey Innocence Project

by Casey J. Bastian 

Rutgers University-Camden is the new base of operations for the New Jersey Innocence Project (“NJIP”). Jill Friedman is the associate dean for pro bono and public interest at Rutgers Law School in Camden, as well as one of NJIP’s co-founders. “Any person who is in prison wrongly because he or she actually didn’t do the crime, that’s a horrible injustice in itself,” said Friedman. Residents of New Jersey seeking exoneration for crimes of which they have been wrongfully convicted now have NJIP to address such injustices.

Prior to the NJIP initiative, New Jersey remained the only state in the country without an innocence organization operating within the national Innocence Network, which is based in New York. According to the National Innocence Project, it is estimated that upwards of five percent of all the people in prison are innocent. The National Registry of Exonerations found that 42 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated in New Jersey alone through the help of innocence projects since 1989.

Many of these wrongful convictions stem from witness misidentifications, faulty forensic science, and/or improper law enforcement procedures. Kimberlee Moran is an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers-Camden. Moran believes that “lawyers need help with the science.” It is her position that attorneys don’t even realize what is missing when there is no forensic scientist to examine the evidence for the defense. And that is one thing NJIP is hoping to help provide as part of its multifaceted approach.

NJIP hopes to use the broad expertise of the Rutgers-Camden faculty to assist in its mission to provide a wide-range of services, including: review of prisoner requests, gathering and examining investigative and trial records, assistance with forensic issues, assisting with reentry and social issues for prisoners transitioning back into society, and advocating for improved practices and justice reforms.

The offering of social support services by NJIP is a unique feature. “Exonerees receive zero services when they leave prison,” said Sara Plummer. NJIP hopes to provide the necessary support system for former prisoners in an effort to ensure their success. Such support is also something wrongfully convicted persons deserve.

Analyzing data about wrongfully convicted people is a paramount goal for NJIP. This will help in understanding how such miscarriages of justice happen in the first place.

“There are areas that we ought to be looking for, patterns that can be discerned in cases where there is a wrongful conviction, and patterns that we might be able to point to, and point out where there might be room for improvement,” said Jane Siegel, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers-Camden.  


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