02/27/2014 06:13 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

When the Police Are Out of Control

If you've ever read the gospels or the Sermon on the Mount you know that one of the most charitable works of mercy you can do is to visit somebody in prison. While I don't have any friends in prison, a very long time ago I almost spent a night in jail when a police van picked me up in Center City because they were looking for a red haired felon. While walking near Penn Center, I was ordered into the back of a police van where I was shocked to find ten other confused-looking red haired guys. We were taken to the Roundhouse and put in a lineup while a witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. At the end of the ordeal, the victim decided that she could not identify anybody in the lineup, so we were summarily dismissed and told to find our own way home.

"How rude," I thought at the time. "You guys pick me off the street, ruin my night, drive me way out of my way, and then tell me to find my own way home. To top it off, you don't even offer an apology!"

Being in a lineup was everything I'd seen on TV: you stand on an elevated platform or stage with the other suspects. You look straight ahead. You do not smile or grimace. In front of you is the big dark glass panel behind which the victim or victims of the crime scrutinize your face. Tension mounts like the build up of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Hell this was it. I don't recommend it as an "experience."

In my travels around the neighborhood, I've heard many people say that they know somebody on parole, or that they are on parole themselves. I find it a very sad thing that so many people wind up behind bars.

While the United States accounts for just 5% of the world's population, it houses 25% of the world's prison population. Twenty-five percent is astounding. These numbers do not reflect a rise in violent crime but in the number of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200% since 1980. Today there are over 500,000 people in the nation's prisons for drug-related offenses.

Several years ago I spoke with filmmakers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza about their documentary film, "Concrete Steel & Paint," about a group of Graterford Correctional prisoners and neighbors (some of them victims of violent crime) coming together to paint a Mural Arts Project mural dedicated to "healing." Ms. Burstein, who also works as Adjunct Professor of media and cultural studies in the Film & Media Arts Dept. at Temple University, said then that the documentary came along "at the right time."

"The number of people in prison since the late 1970s, when the prison population was about 300,000, is now up to two million. A lot of that has to do with the drug laws of the 1980s, as well as sentencing laws that are keeping non-violent offenders in jail for longer periods of time," she told me.

This brings me to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, because what if -- on that "redhead" police lineup so long ago -- the victim in question had identified me as her assailant? How would I have proven my innocence?

The Pennsylvania Project was founded by two Philadelphia lawyers, David Richardson of Pepper Hamilton, and David Rudovsky, one of the country's leading civil rights and criminal defense attorneys (he is co-author of the book, Police Misconduct: Law and Litigation 2009: the Art of Arrest, Search & Seizure in Pennsylvania).

PIP's offices are located in an obscure office at Temple University's McConnell Hall. On a recent visit to the office, I counted as many as 15 law student volunteers working diligently at computers. The office has minimal decoration and is a study in Spartan economy: File boxes cover the floors, and the volunteers, glued to their computers, look like the readers of great mystery novels thoroughly engrossed in the stories or case studies at hand.

Marissa Bluestine, the Project's Legal Director, oversees the legal work of the project and the networking of the project.

I ask Marissa if the recent media attention to wrongful convictions has had any impact on the criminal justice system.

"Though there's more attention paid to wrongful convictions today, there have been no prominent changes," she says.

The recording of interrogations of subjects, or even videotaping or audio taping them, does not stop false confessions, but it does give a jury or fact finders the ability to determine false confessions. Marissa says that the recording of interrogations is not happening in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating that police, both local and federal, are permitted to lie to a suspect during an interrogation doesn't help matters any, she said. In Europe, the opposite of this is true: police are forbidden to lie to a suspect, however heinous the crime. "The only thing that the police cannot do is threaten people with the death penalty, or with violence or some kind of physical ramifications," Marissa adds.

We live in an era when getting tough on criminals is seen as a way to fight crime. Stiffer sentences, the greater use of capital punishment, as well as a tendency to always assume guilt before innocence has been the way of the world where crimes that used to be considered rare -- multiple random killings or family murders -- are now the norm. An indicator of this change has been the Internet, where harsh "vigilante" feelings about suspects exceed the boundaries of civility. Here it's not uncommon to read how people want suspects killed or put away for life without the benefit of a trial. One can understand these reactions on an emotional level, but things don't work that way in a civilized society.

It should also be noted that the Innocence Project is some kind of "get out of jail" card.

Since the Pennsylvania Project's founding the organization has received more than 2100 letters claiming wrongful conviction status, but from that huge pool, Marissa says the Project only selected 3 cases (with 3 others having been taken on outside that batch of letters). "In addition, we identified at least 100 cases as probable Innocence cases. The rest we rejected."

But even after a thorough analysis by law school and other trained volunteers (who all make confidentiality agreements), the Project may still decide that cases that don't hold up or that lack sufficient "innocence" evidence have to be dropped.

Consider the "undropped" case of Harold Wilson, who spent 16 years in prison and who, in 1989, was given 3 death sentences. Wilson was prosecuted by Philadelphia DA Jack McMahon and convicted of 3 counts of murder and robbery in South Philadelphia. When Wilson was originally arrested he cooperated with police and assumed that his innocence would protect him. But this assumption, according to the National Center for Reason and Justice, is a mistake. "If you are accused," states the Center's logo, "your innocence does not protect you." This is especially true for poor and friendless suspects "that are unable to attract committed advocates."

Happily for Wilson, his sentence was overturned in 1999.

The timeline for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project can be traced to 2006, when Philadelphia lawyer David Richardson was sitting in a meeting of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Richardson was paying particular attention to the speaker, Bill Moushey a retired investigative reporter for The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Moushey's talk focused on the criminal cases he'd been involved with as well as the 40 Innocence Projects he's been involved with around the country.

Moushey asked the audience, "How is it possible that there isn't an Innocence Project in Philadelphia?"

Richardson, who used to work for Arlen Specter and who refers to that time as "the Golden Age of Philadelphia's Prosecution Office," says he took Moshe's comment as a personal rebuke. When he met David Rudovsky, then a Public Defender, the "two David's" decided to do something about wrongful convictions and formed a Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

"What people find appealing about the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is that we are only representing people who have claims of actual innocence," Richardson said, adding that the Project is not about getting people off on legal technicalities.

"We're talking not only about a legally erroneous conviction but the fact that it resulted in an innocent person going to jail," he says.

In other words, people who have been wrongly arrested and convicted.

Both Richardson and Rudovsky agree that journalists have done "incredible" work in wrongful conviction cases. "Law students," Richardson says, "are used to writing briefs and they are unlikely, like journalists, to do the grubby work of digging out facts and finding witnesses."

Perhaps the strangest of all wrongful conviction culprits is the false confession.

Why would somebody confess to a crime they did not commit?

"The police come in and tell a suspect, 'We've arrested your accomplice and your accomplice has already testified that you are the wrongdoer and so you are going to be executed for the offense unless I can help you. Give me something!'"

Or, as Richardson elaborated, the police might pretend to have DNA evidence that shows that the suspect is the one who did the crime.

"If you're being interrogated for 5, 10 or 15 hours at a stretch, and if the police aren't even acknowledging your denials but say, 'We know you did it,' the suspect thinks, 'I gotta stop this because I know that the system will work and once I get outta here it will all be made right.' But the truth is, nothing gets made right."

Most false confessions, I was told, come from the young and marginally educated who don't have a lot of emotional support in their lives.

Richardson cites prosecutorial misconduct or suppression of evidence as a reason for wrongful convictions.

"Justice Scalia will say, 'Nobody innocent has ever been executed.' Well, that's bull. A lot of people who have been exonerated have been on death row and we've only been doing this work for a few years."