Civil rights lawyer discusses wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system

Rund Khayyat

Wrongful conviction in the criminal justice system is a structural barrier for U.S. racial equality, according to Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney for The Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project, developed in 1992, works to reform the criminal justice system and exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

Morrison, who gave a lecture at the LBJ School of Public Affairs on Monday, said her exonerated clients inspire her with their courage.

“These people have been wrongly imprisoned for 20, 30, even 40 years, yet they faced their struggles with grace and fortitude,” Morrison said. “I am privileged to walk them out of the courtroom as free men.”

According to Morrison, she has assisted in the representation of 21 individuals who have been freed from death row or lengthy prison sentences based on new DNA evidence. 

Blacks are grossly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population and are more commonly involved with DNA exoneration, Morrison said.

“Of the 325 people I exonerated through DNA evidence, 70 percent were non-white, and 63 percent were African American,” Morrison said.  

In the civil rights era, Morrison said, the black minority passed legal acts by appealing to the hearts and minds of the majority. According to Morrison, The Innocence Project applies a similar strategy today to try and pass bills.

“Our clients have no political or financial power, but we’ve had success because we appeal to the empathy, outrage and humanity in everyone,” Morrison said.

The first DNA exoneration in the U.S. took place in 1989. Today, every state in the U.S. has passed a DNA exoneration bill. 

Morrison spoke about past instances of bias in the criminal justice system, such as when Dallas prosecutors were given explicit instructions not to pick blacks, Jews or overweight jurors.

The grand jury system is biased and subjective, according to Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who also spoke at the lecture. 

“The secrecy in our court process is like a Klan meeting,” Ellis said.

Although she said the criminal justice system is imperfect, the lecture inspired Chloe Sikes, curriculum and instruction graduate student, to believe legislation is a way to spark change.

“Ellis confirmed the DNA exoneration bills have flaws, but they are a step in the right direction.” Sykes said, “[We must] focus on short term goals and work towards long-term wide changes.”