In Search of Justice

The New Jersey Innocence Project, established recently at Rutgers, brings together various disciplines to support those wrongfully convicted

Mariel Delacruz GSC’18, left, and Nakea Barksdale RLAW’20 are Rutgers–Camden alumnae who volunteer for the New Jersey Innocence Project.

By Sam Starnes and Jeanne Leong

Rutgers University–Camden alumnae Nakea Barksdale and Mariel Delacruz work in roles that could be considered diametrically opposed: Barksdale, a 2020 graduate of Rutgers Law School in Camden, is a public defender; Delacruz, a 2018 graduate of the master’s in criminal justice program, works for a prosecutor. But as volunteers for the New Jersey Innocence Project, a recently launched initiative championed by and based at Rutgers, they are on the same team with the same goal: Exonerating those wrongfully convicted of crimes and advocating against future wrongful convictions. “Innocence work is important,” said Delacruz, a research policy specialist for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “Historically, we’ve noticed a lot of disparities in people who are sentenced and wrongfully convicted. It’s important because we want to make sure we are being just and that we are discussing those disparities.”

Barksdale, an assistant deputy public defender with the appellate division of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, agreed. “When you look at the people who are impacted, not just by the criminal justice system, but by wrongful convictions, it’s people who look like me,” she said. “It’s brown and Black people who come from disadvantaged communities. It’s people who lack resources, and sometimes they were at the wrong place or the wrong time. It’s important to have an organization that helps people who fell victim to that system and who are stuck behind bars for something they didn’t commit.”

Barksdale and Delacruz both became involved in efforts to establish the New Jersey Innocence Project when they were students and have remained involved as alumni working in criminal justice. With the support of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, the project combines the expertise of Rutgers faculty and students in law, forensic science, criminal justice, and social work.

Emiliano Alquezada, a 2021 graduate of Rutgers–Camden’s graphic design program, designed this logo for the New Jersey Innocence Project.

Until the launch of this Rutgers initiative, New Jersey had been the only state that did not have an organization associated with the national Innocence Network. “It’s long overdue,” said Jane Siegel, a Rutgers‒Camden professor of criminal justice and co-founder of the New Jersey Innocence Project.

The breadth of Rutgers faculty expertise along with assistance from students will allow the Innocence Project, which plans to have an office based in the Rutgers Law School in Camden, to offer an array of services, including reviewing requests from prisoners; gathering and examining trial information and investigative records; dealing with forensic issues; assisting in re-entry into the general population; and advocating for better practices and criminal justice reforms.

Estimates are that up to 5 percent of those incarcerated in America are wrongly convicted, according to the National Innocence Project, and the National Registry of Exonerations cites 42 wrongly convicted people in New Jersey who have been exonerated since 1989. “Any person who is in prison wrongly because he or she actually didn’t do the crime—that’s a horrible injustice,” said Jill Friedman, a co-founder of the New Jersey Innocence Project, and associate dean for pro bono and public interest at Rutgers Law School in Camden.

In addition to work by law faculty and students, faculty and students in forensic sciences will provide assistance to exoneration cases. Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers‒Camden who has provided forensic services to legal professionals and led training workshops for law enforcement professionals nationally and internationally, is building a Rutgers Crime Lab Unit that will be intertwined with the Innocence Project. (For more about the Crime Lab Unit, read this story.)

Beyond working on select cases, Rutgers‒Camden researchers will seek to understand how and why wrongful convictions happen and use their findings to support efforts to reform the criminal justice system and prevent future injustices. “There are patterns that can be discerned in cases where there is wrongful conviction, and patterns that we might be able to point to, and point out where there might be room for improvement,” Siegel said.

A unique feature of the program is that social work students will connect clients with resources to assist with transitioning back to living in the general population. “Exonerees receive zero services when they leave prison,” said Sara Plummer, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Social Work. “They are not able to obtain the services and resources offered to people who have been found guilty and have completed their prison sentence and get released on parole.”

Ultimately, the multidisciplinary approach will benefit the wrongfully convicted in various ways. “The magic of what we are doing here at Rutgers is that everything is in house,” Moran said. “We are able to take it to the next level.”

From left, Kimberlee Moran, director of forensics; Barksdale; Jane Siegel, professor of criminal justice; and Delacruz.

Posted in: 2021 Fall

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