Barry Scheck is a pioneer in the courtroom for using DNA evidence to exonerate clients like Hedda Nussbaum and O. J. Simpson, and he now continues his work through the Innocence Project. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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Barry Scheck has been defending clients and arguing cases for a long time.
"Every time I go to a max security prison and they lock the doors to see a client, I’m always amazed they let me out,” says Scheck.
Because of Scheck's work with DNA evidence, some of those clients eventually get out, too.
He was initially known for his involvement in high profile cases like Hedda Nussbaum, Abner Louima and O. J. Simpson, but Scheck's name is now synonymous with the Innocence Project, the organization he co-founded along with Peter Neufeld that uses DNA technology to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted.
"Our days are part of getting innocent people out of prison, part of battling junk science," says Scheck.
The letters seeking help from people who feel they've been unjustly convicted come into the Innocence Project's offices from all over the country.
"Our criteria is very simple: could DNA testing prove you innocent? It’s a simple criteria. It’s very hard to evaluate because you have to go back and find the police reports, the transcripts, see if DNA would really make a difference, then we have to go out and find the evidence, which is 20, 30 years old," says Scheck.
The workload is constant and occasionally overwhelming. For instance, consider the comments of Dewey Bozella, who was exonerated in 2009 after spending 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"He mentioned that he wrote to us and we got back to him three years later and I remember saying wow, that’s not bad all things considered," says Scheck.
Scheck occasionally meets with interns who are students from Cardozo Law School, where he teaches.
On a recent day, the subject was the much publicized case of Troy Davis, who was subsequently executed for murder, despite claims that he was innocent.
"The procedures that were used in the first place to obtain the eyewitness identifications were way over the line," says Scheck.
He caught up with Betty Ann Waters, who became a lawyer to get her wrongfully convicted brother Kenny exonerated, inspiring the film "Conviction."
The cases are never far from Scheck's thoughts.
"I’m always suspicious of people who say ‘I go to my work and do this and come home and I’m another person and I don't carry anything over.’ Very suspicious of people like that,’” says Scheck.
Scheck has worked on many high profile cases, but one stands out above the rest: the O. J. Simpson case.
Scheck says he was initially brought on as a consultant on the evidence, but his role broadened.
His style of cross examining witnesses became the subject of controversy, and Scheck now says the case harmed both the criminal justice system and the media.
However, he says there was one silver lining: an understanding on how to handle DNA evidence properly.
"Never put anything wet in a plastic bag, always change your gloves, and it’s a whole thing about how you collect and handle the evidence," says Scheck.
Everyone saw the reception in the courtroom after Simpson was acquitted, but what type of reception did Scheck receive back in New York in private?
"The police were great. Police officers said ‘oh, you were doing your job.’ The most difficult scenes were sometimes among the liberal communities in Manhattan, right, they were very angry. They said ‘you know you shouldn’t be a defense lawyer, that’s wrong,’" says Scheck.
Barry Scheck went to PS 101 in Forest Hills, Wagner Middle School and eventually Horace Mann in Riverdale.
It was the mid-1960s. He was against the Vietnam War, but he also took the unpopular position that everyone should be able to be drafted.
"My position was they should get rid of the college deferments, because people of color, poor people were fighting the war. One of my colleagues was saying, ‘no, what are you, crazy?’" says Scheck. "If we did not have a professional military, if we had a draft, maybe there would have been a war or two here we would not have fought."
While at Yale, Scheck went to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, where protesters and police clashed in the streets. He attended anti-war rallies in Washington, and he interned for the Lindsay Administration.
Amidst all of this, he somehow managed to miss one of the biggest events in the Scheck household, arranged by a friend of the family: the night Jets quarterback Joe Namath came for dinner.
"Joe Namath is having dinner at my home, and my mother asks him "what’s your major?" And he says ‘underwater basket weaving, ma’am,’ and she thought he was the most charming guy in the world," says Scheck.
Scheck's father was a professional tap dancer. He went on to manage entertainers.
Scheck says his own path was never in doubt. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he saw law as an instrument of social change.
After graduating from law school at Berkeley in 1974, he came back to the Bronx to work as a public defender, a job he calls “liberty's last champion.”
"That’s the best education you can get, because you know you are dealing with poverty, you’re dealing oppression," says Scheck. "I was going to represent all these people like I was a lawyer in a corporate law firm. That’s the kind of representation they got."
It was the mid-80s before Scheck would try a case using DNA technology, which became his calling card.
"We knew that this was transformative technology, we knew that this was going to exonerate innocent people and apprehend the guilty,” says Scheck. “We knew it was important to do it right scientifically."
Scheck believes most police are idealistic and want to do the right thing — same for prosecutors.
The biggest problems for Scheck and the innocence project, as he sees them, are volume and time.
"There are far too many claims of people in prison who didn't commit the crimes than any of us have the ability to deal with. We're going to miss some," says Scheck. "We're in a race against time to make sure that evidence is not destroyed before we can get there and exonerate people and find the people who committed the crime before they go out and commit more." •
Scheck is married and has two grown children.
The painting in his office is of Willie Mays, but he now is a diehard Yankees fan.
Success in his work is understandably anything but a game: It's nothing less than a matter of life and death.
"I am impatient,” says Scheck. “It's important to win because what we are doing is right. It's a good fight."