Interview with Jennifer Ives ’13: The Innocence Project

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Jennifer Ives ’13 has proved that it really is possible to get hired with an English degree. After graduating in May, she has been working at The Innocence Project, a non-profit, pro-bono law firm that helps prove prisoners innocent using DNA testing, along with two other Wes Alums — Liza Parisky ’12 and Jo Oh ’09. The firm was founded in 1992 and as of date, there have been 311 innocent prisoners released due to DNA testing. Of these 311, the prisoners served an average of 13 years behind bars, with some spending as many as 25 years, and 18 prisoners have served time on death row. Ives contacted us because she will be running the NYC Marathon with colleagues from the IP to raise money for the cause — you can find her fundraising page here. I decided to ask her a few questions about the IP.

What did you major in at Wesleyan?

I majored in English, though I also took a fair amount of Religion courses. After my time at Wes, I felt like I majored in everything– I got a taste of so many different disciplines while there.

What was your favorite class at Wesleyan?

Religion and the Social Construction of Race with Elizabeth McAlister. Incredibly thought-provoking material and the most inspiring professor I’ve ever had.

How did you get involved in the IP?

I became interested in prison reform after a shocking experience I had this past spring. I had to testify in open court against two boys my age who had (albeit stupidly, and illegally) broken into my apartment in July of 2012. Despite the fact that they broke the law, the sentence they were handed down seemed extremely harsh to me considering their offense. I was deeply troubled by the outcome, especially since they were so close to my age. The negativity of the experience as a whole sparked my interest in prison reform and inspired me to research organizations that seek to fix the many problems plaguing our judicial system. The Innocence Project was one of the first organizations I found that really grabbed me. So after graduating this past May, I applied and was hired. I started working in June.

What is your role within the project?

I work in the Development Department. As a nonprofit, we run entirely on donations and funds raised throughout the year. The Development Department is responsible for procuring our entire yearly budget. It’s quite a task!

What was the most exciting moment of success and/or frustration you’ve encountered working with the IP?

I feel so lucky to work alongside the people who are directly responsible for freeing these men and women from prison. It’s incredible to me to read stories of our recent exonerations in the NYTimes or other large publications and see pictures of the attorneys I share a coffee pot with. This organization is filled to the brim with incredible, like-minded people who have spent their careers working to free the innocent and reverse the twisted policies that get them sent to prison in the first place. Perhaps my most humbling experience to date was meeting two of the five men convicted (and later released) in the “Central Park Five” case. There’s a pretty recent documentary about the case by Sarah Burns (Ken Burns’ daughter) chronicling their nightmare. In short, five innocent boys from the ages of 13 and 15 were sent to prison for the battery and rape of a jogger in central park, only to be released seven to ten years later when the real perpetrator confessed to the crime. The victim of the attack, of course, withstood her own nightmare–I do not mean to glaze over that fact whatsoever. Two of the wrongfully convicted men, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, stopped by the Innocence Project office a month or so ago. They spoke to my colleagues and I with candor and strength, more poised than I could ever hope to be had I experienced their ordeal. I felt a mixture of deep emotion and fury after; how does our system get it so extremely wrong sometimes?

Has the Innocence Project been successful with any policy change?

Yes! The DNA exoneration cases that the IP has handled over the past 21 years provide irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions aren’t rare or isolated events. Rather, they arise from systemic defects in our judicial system. The IP has worked to pinpoint these trends over the years and has developed policy reform based on the following four issues: eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions and incriminating statements, and informants. Eyewitness misidentification occurs when a victim points to the wrong person in a line up, or identifies the wrong person in court. Sadly, before DNA evidence was considered reputable, one person’s word against the other was enough to send an innocent man or woman to prison for twenty years. Improper forensic science is even more troubling, as it’s founded in “science”. No one questions science, right? This past July, an agreement between the IP, NADCL, FBI, and Department of Justice was reached to review more than 2,000 criminal cases in which the FBI conducted microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence because the methods being used were found to be extremely unreliable. IP co-director Peter Neufeld played a critical role in brokering this agreement. The review has already uncovered as many as 27 death penalty convictions where defendants have been linked to crimes by questionable scientific testimony. And the review has only just begun! Scary stuff…

You can find more information about this agreement here.

For more about the IP, check out their website.