Tocsin Magazine spoke with Olga Akselrod, the Director of Intake and Evaluation of The Innocence Project, Inc. Located at 40 Worth Street, Suite 701 New York, New York 10013. Our goal is to provide our readers with vital information while facing time behind bars.
Tocsin: Could you give us a brief description of what the Innocence Project is?
Olga: Sure, The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1992. We have a dual mission. One is to represent defendants who have been wrongfully convicted where DNA post-conviction could prove their innocence and the second mission is to change the system to address the causes of wrongful convictions, so wrongful convictions don’t happen to begin with.
Tocsin: What if there isn’t any DNA involved in a wrongful conviction case?
Olga: The vast majority of our clients were convicted before DNA testing became available. Most of our clients were convicted in the 1980s, some even earlier. So, they were convicted when evidence was being collected, but DNA testing hadn’t been developed to be used on their cases. We also represent people who have been convicted after DNA testing became available through newer methods that can obtain results that couldn’t be obtained using the technology that was available during their trial. DNA testing has evolved enormously over the years. There are techniques that are available that weren’t available maybe 5 or 10 years ago.
Tocsin: So, if someone wanted to submit their case to The Innocence Project what procedure should they follow?
Olga: We ask that people write us a letter, and tell us as much as they can about their case. We do have an online form that people could fill out instead of the letter. But, the easiest is for them to just write us a letter and let us know what happened to them.
Tocsin: How many cases do the organization handle per year?
Olga: I’m not sure what our current docket is. It probably hovers around 200 to 250 active cases at any one time. That may be a little more or a little less, but that is our active docket.
Tocsin: We have hundreds of inmates who write to us. Is it possible for us to send their letters to your organization for them?
Olga: Sure, if people write to you and claim their innocence you could forward it to us, and if it seems like a case that might be a DNA case we would forward them a questionnaire.
Tocsin: Your organization is based in New York. Do you help people in other states?
Olga: Yes, we are a nationwide project. We work everywhere except a few states. So, we do not work in Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Wisconsin, or Puerto Rico.
Tocsin: Are there any other options for people who are in the states your organization DOES NOT cover?
Olga: Yes, the reason we do not work in those states is that they are covered by other local Innocence Projects. The Innocence Network is a loose affiliation to all of the Innocence Project around the country. If you go on the Innocence Network’s website there is a list of places. Also, on our website, where it talks about submitting a case, there is a list of organizations in those states.
Tocsin: Is there any other information you think would be helpful to people who may reach out to you?
Olga: There is additional information on our website www.innocenceproject.org, which talks about the kinds of cases we do not take. For example, we do not represent people who have not yet been convicted or people who have not completed their direct appeals process.