The Innocence Project


Anyone who has read John Grisham’s fine non-fiction book entitled,  An Innocent Man will have run into something called  ‘The Innocence Project’.    What is the Innocence Project?  It is the efforts of a group of lawyers and others to rectify the all too numerous mistakes made by our criminal justice system, especially before the era of DNA evidence.   The website to learn more about this righteous effort and the people involved in it is—-      Tonight on the ESPY awards we had the story of Dewey Bozella, who was given the Arthur Ashe award for courage.  Dewey was imprisoned in New York for over twenty years for a murder he never committed.  The whole time he was in prison he maintained his innocence and used his time incarcerated to: 1) get an education, and 2) get his body fit through boxing training.  And fortunately he contacted the Innocence Project who finally found the evidence that exonerated and freed Dewey Bozella. It’s a moving story, which illustrates a Biblical principle “the truth can set you free” quite literally.

Why do I bring this up? Well several reasons.  ‘Justice’ in this country is a commodity that all too often is lacking in the outcomes of our system of jurisprudence, and even worse, sometimes it seems it is up for sale.  By this I mean, if you can afford a really good lawyer, you are more likely to be exonerated (even if you did it) than a poor person with a court appointed attorney.  It shouldn’t be this way, but sadly it is sometimes.  This is why the poor often call our system the criminal injustice system.   And indeed it is literally criminal when someone who never committed crime has to do the time.  I don’t see any lawyers or juries or judges doing time for helping convict people of crimes they don’t commit.   It is interesting however that there were laws in antiquity that if you lied in order to help convict someone of a crime they didn’t commit, and were caught doing it— then you did the time for the crime he or she was accused of.   Interesting, and it probably put a damper on false witness.   Christians who care about justice need to think about these matters, for our God urged his people ‘let justice flow down like rivers…’

The second reason I bring this up is something I was taught a long time ago in seminary,  namely that a person who has no capacity for righteous indignation and no will to fight for the wronged and oppressed has no business being a minister.  I believe that is true?  Calling all ministers— does evil and wickedness and unfair laws and injustice bother you? At all?   Having you ever spent any time visiting those in prison?   Jesus said we should, you remember.   It can change your life and your witness and your ministry if you do.  There are saved souls in prison, and those who still want to be forgiven and saved as well.  My friend Amy Jill Levine teaches a Bible class in prison on Mondays.  She calls them — ‘my felons’, and she loves to interact with them.  O.K. so she has a captive audience, but many of them are learning God’s Word all the same.

And the third reason to bring this up is that the death penalty often executes innocent persons.   Since the system is far from infallible, and since no one on earth is omniscient, and since the burden of proof must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there are good reasons for a Christian to oppose the death penalty.  A person should be truly innocent until proven guilty.  And one more thing, as a Christian when you take away the life of a non-Christian, you probably have taken that person’s possibility of redemption away.  Have you ever thought of that?

Lastly, a plea for being truly and totally pro-life.   I am all for opposing abortion.  I am also for opposing capital punishment and war.  I believe we as Christians should offer a totally pro-life platform. We should care as much for the born as for the unborn when it comes to life, and we should cry out ‘injustice’ when a born person is wrongly harmed or executed just as much as we do when a baby is aborted.  But strangely, we don’t do that very much.

Let me remind each one of us that the Bible says we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards.   Justice is when you get what you deserve.   If you really think about it,  if we are talking about the whole sum and substance of our lives, we should not be screaming for justice from God for ourselves, because that will end badly for all of us.   But there is a place to advocate for justice when particular acts of injustice have been committed against particular persons at particular times.

Mercy by contrast is when we don’t get what we deserve as sinful folk.  And finally grace is when we get forgiveness and good things we have not deserved.   So, if we all want mercy and forgiveness, and we all know we have fallen short, how exactly can we ignore the cry of justice when a clear act of injustice has been committed against person?   I don’t think we can, and I hope you don’t think so either, for the justice the Bible mostly talks about is the vindication of the wronged and oppressed,  not the sort of ‘justice’ meted out all too often to the rich and entitled in our world.   Justice should be blind, and at the same time impartial, and at the same time not for sale.   Think on these things.

  • Bob Lewis

    Right on, brother. Same thoughts ought to apply to the thousands of innocent civilians we slaughter via or foreign imperial incursions.

  • Justin

    I don’t know if any particular current event prompted your post, but it made me think about a recent jury decision. I did not follow the trial like so many others did. I think that the person is probably guilty, but would rather see a guilty person freed than an innocent one executed. In this case, the prosecutors seemed to display great arrogance while doing very sloppy work.

    As for the death penalty – I am not against it as such, but I think it should be used 1) in only the most extreme cases and 2) when the evidence is incontrovertible. A case built upon circumstantial evidence should not be eligible for the death penalty.

    I appreciate your comments on visiting those in prison. I have a family member who has been incarcerated for several years now. It has certainly opened my eyes to the great need.

  • John Mark

    I find it hard to be ‘totally pro-life’ in that I think there are times when the death penalty is just. I know firsthand that many murders are acts of passion and are a one time event for the killer; but there are rare exceptions that seem to require the strongest penalty. I generally favor a restitution oriented prison system; this is off topic for your post, but I don’t think it helps society for many criminals to just rot in jail–in non violent crimes the best course is to literally pay back your debt to society.
    I struggle with war as well. I have tempered my opinions on war in the last ten years, I still think that war may be justified when our nation has been directly attacked: I believe the state has a responsibility to protect it’s citizens. Of course, in this age of terrorism, it is rather difficult to even find some of your enemies, and there are many other complicating factors as well.
    I would point out that some of the strongest ‘anti-war’ advocates are at times among the most fervent defenders of abortion on demand. In my mind, they are more inconsistent than I am; and I don’t know how they can justify such contradictory views.

  • ben witherington

    John Mark I agree that it is hypocritical to defend abortion on demand, and oppose war and/or capital punishment. I don’t think, as I have said on previous posts, there is such a thing as a just war. The best you could argue for is a justifiable war, based on a lesser of two evils argument. War is never good and should not be glorified. It is always the destruction of innocent lives and always involves violations of crucial ethical principles,


  • Random Arrow

    Good post. Nothing to add.

    Except a gratis gift for one who likes, “The Demon Archer.”

    With your post about the Innocence Project in mind (keep this in mind), and for reasons why poor people (my clients) do not trust the legal system – take another look at the movie – Winter’s Bone – and listen very carefully to the gospel song – because the gospel song is playing distinctly in the background, a few times – “Further (Farther) Along.”

    “Tempted and tried,
    we’re oft made to wonder
    Why it should be thus all the day long;

    Farther along we’ll know more about it,
    Farther along we’ll understand why; ….”

    Then see – and watch in the movie – watch the subtle and not-so-subtle interplay between Teardrop (brother to dead brother) and the sherif – and watch the interaction too between Ree and the sherif – and play that gospel song in your mind. All movie long. Keep in mind the Innocence Project.

    The winter – in Winter’s Bone – is cold and true for so many.

    Haunting. Redemptive. True.



  • Oscar

    Ben, you said“And the third reason to bring this up is that the death penalty often executes innocent persons.”If this is so, then please give us some facts. It is just too easy to say that the system is not fair, therefore some innocent person MUST have been executed.This amounts to hearsay at best and calumny at worst if not backed up by fact. There is ammunition enough to argue against the death penalty without leveling some unsubstantiated claims.

  • Oscar

    Oh yes, one more thing… You said “often’, meaning that it is common knowledge that the innocent are regularly executed.

    Bad form for an argument from an educated man.

  • Random Arrow

    Oscar, unsubstantiated? Have you actually read any of the Innocence Project advocacy? Have you? Have you tried to research any empirical legal studies substantiating claims of not-guilty (since you corrected Ben – I’ll correct you, the term is not “innocent,” but is “not-guilty,” if you really want to get your in-a-knot usages right) for those already executed or on death row? Where would you like to start with – substantiation – maybe with the Salem Witchcraft trials? Or something more recent?

    Substantiation? Maybe you are Oscar (oops, Oskar) Schindler – waiting for the kind of substantiation of charred, burned, ashen dead-embers of burning bodies to fall out of the sky on the fender of your car? – as you try to look the other way?

    If you are really taking the high and holy road of – “There is ammunition enough to argue against the death penalty” – then why wouldn’t you substantiate that claim with empirical legal research yourself? – or was that just a throw-away claim for you?

    Cheers, Jim

  • Carole

    It is a sad truth today that many, many ministers are not bothered at all by injustice, unfair laws, evil & wickedness [These last 2 often seem to have fluidity of definition depending on the climate {political} of the times.] And we often think of injustice & unfair laws only in terms of criminal proceedings but there is a lot of injustice out there these days in the form of laws & regulations & few speaking out against it.Mostly pastors seem to want to maintain the status quo. I often wonder: Where is the passion? Yet I am realistic enough to know from my own experiences that speaking out against injustice can have not so good consequences.

    In regard to the death penalty, I have been opposed to it for years.And there is an aspect of it that few persons ever think about–the effect on the family of the person on death row or executed.In a sense they too are sentenced & that is not fair or just especially in the way they are treated by the penal system & the public. In working with a prison ministry group I met/heard testimony from those who had had a loved one executed.Tore my heart out. [and their loved one was guilty]Also had a church member who had a family member on death row & 2 friends with relatives who had been on death row but one was released from prison [innocent] & the other’s sentence commuted but he has been treated very unfairly by the system as he seeks to serve out his sentence mostly due to the need at the time of various officials for positive publicity.

    Speaking as someone on the outside looking in, there is such a need for Christians today to quit using the Scriptures for political & personal agendas & start living them out beginning with speaking out against injustice, unfairness, evil & sin instead of just accepting it as the way things are.

  • Random Arrow

    yikes … “sheriff” not “sherif” … have my spell checker set to accept Sherif (Muzafer) of social conflict theory, which could be an interesting overlay in the movie … and for the Innocence Project … if not also for a blog entitled Bible and Culture! Cheers, Jim.

  • ben witherington

    Oscar it is quite fair to ask for the evidence of wrongful execution. The evidence is plentiful but a good place to start is by reading Grisham’s An Innocent Man and following the trail from there.


  • Oscar

    To both Ben AND Random Arrow (Jim): broad brush accusations do NOT enhance any truth to thew subject UNLESS you include some factual examples. I understand that you are passionate about your convictions. I am not questioning that OR that there may have been unjust executions, just your method of stating your case.

    Grisham’s book is a good example of the “not guilty” (happy now, Jim?) being exonerated, and his many examples of the whole problem of seeking justice should trouble ANY fair minded person, but I have YET to read of a truly innocent man being executed.

    Perhaps I have not been perceptive enough or maybe not well read, but until I see some proven examples I will remain only “troubled” by the subject and not “outraged”.

    Please understand, there are literally MILLIONS of people like me who are concerned about justice but are not convinced by passion alone. In fact, passion is abundant in even FALSE causes, so PLEASE understand that without substantial “proof” your claims are just that, “claims”.

    Now, on the subject of the death penalty itself I am trending more on the abolition of the practice. Even so, I am equally bothered by the proven perpetrators being given a life sentence when the blood of the innocent cries out for justice.

  • Carole

    I fail to understand how a life sentence [especially without parole] is not justice.Perhaps if you knew someone who has been incarcerated you might have a different understanding. One of the best reads on the subject of the death penalty I have read is probably now out of print but is titled CHOOSE MERCY. Sorry can’t remember the author’s name. It is written by a woman whose child was murdered & how she came to be opposed to the death penalty.

  • ben witherington

    Oscar this is not a matter of passion, it is a matter of the facts. Nor is it a matter of mere logic, it is a matter of the facts. Read the Grisham book, and then look at the evidence at the Innocence Project website. And I will then show you the email I just received as well.


  • ben witherington

    Dear Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you for your writing on the Innocence Project. My husband Jim Petro, former Ohio Attorney General, and I have co-authored FALSE JUSTICE – EIGHT MYTHS THAT CONVICT THE INNOCENT (Kaplan Publishing, Jan. 2004 / Simon & Schuster distributing). We would like to send you a complimentary copy. Please let us know if Asbury is not your preferred address.

    For information on the book, please visit

    FALSE JUSTICE is my husband’s memoir focusing on criminal justice and his rude awakening to the tragic scope of wrongful conviction. Jim became the first state attorney general to intervene on behalf of an Innocence Project client, a family man with no prior record, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and rape and was serving a life sentence. Jim’s intervention put him at odds with the elected county prosecutor and judges who refused to acknowledge the DNA evidence that had put the innocent Clarence Elkins in prison and let the guilty man (Earl Mann) go free. The first 60 pages of the book, the Elkins case, was just the beginning or our multi-year search for truth and the resulting book.

    Lifelong Christians, we were haunted by the thought of innocent people in prison. I was awakened in the middle of the night with a clear call to write a book on this topic. Notwithstanding the fact that I had never written a book, I took this as a call. It took about two and a half years to write the book, but the first publisher that saw it, bought it. In our home, I call this “God’s book.”

    I hope that you will be receptive to receiving it. Because it is our mission to expand the message of the book, we are doing forums often in churches. My husband was recently appointed by Gov. Kasich to be Chancellor of the Board of Regents for higher education in Ohio, so time his restricted, but we continue to promote better understanding of the justice system.

    Best wishes and thank you for bringing the attention of Christians to our responsibilities in issues of justice.

    Nancy Petro
    Co-author False Justice – Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent

  • ben witherington

    As an anecdotal note. I grew up in the South, and before and during the Civil Rights movement, there were many many African Americans jailed, then convicted of trumped up charges, then given life sentences, then not paroled, and in some cases executed. There were so many cases of wrongful prosecution, or wrongful sentencing it was pathetic. It was one of the main reasons that in the 40s through 60s some 30 or more percent of the Black population (depending on which counting you accept) moved to major Northern cities. I am glad we now live in a better age than that, and with DNA evidence we may be able to reverse many of the wrongful convictions that are still on the books. I hope so.


  • Oscar

    Thanks for the info Ben. On wrongful convictions I have no doubt. It is specifically the claim that the innocent have been executed that still leave me wanting more proof.

    It has been abundantly clear to me that our justice system is based on results before truth and this puts people like The Innocence Project in a reaction mode before pro active means can be effective. God bless them for being there.

    As for the Grisham book, I initially confused it with “An Innocent Man”, a work of fiction that I have already read, so I am picking up “THE Innocent Man” at the library tomorrow. But first I have to slog through Tom Clancy’s latest 750 door stop.

    Thanks for your patience in responding to me.

  • Nancy Petro


    The near-misses (nearly executing persons who were later exonerated) have been indication enough that we have probably not caught all “close calls.” However, if you want names, and if you wish to restrict the discussion of the execution of the innocent to those who have been victims of criminal justice systems, you may want to start with Chapter 6 of the book, “Wrongful Conviction – International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice” (Edited by C. Ronald Huff and Marin Killias). It identifies sixteen individuals whose cases make “compelling claims of executions of the innocent’ in the nearly 800 executions that have occurred in the post-Furman era. The work of earlier researchers is referenced for further study.

    In addition, you may want to read this article in “The New Yorker” on the 2004 execution of Todd Willingham, the case many believe will eventually be the first publicly acknowledged in the U.S. as a wrongful execution.

    Willingham was convicted of murdering his young children by arson. The forensic science testimony given in the trial has now been discredited and many believe the fire was an accident, not a crime. At least 200 persons have been convicted and are in prison based upon this evidence in Texas alone, which is another cause for great concern.

    Finally this, from Thurgood Marshall (Furman v. Georgia, 1972, pp. 367-368):

    “No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony and human error remain too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, be we can be certain that there were some.”

    Nancy Petro

  • Nancy Petro

    Sorry, I had a typo in the Marshall quote. It should be:

    “No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony and human error remain too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.”

    -Nancy Petro, Co-Author of False Justice, Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent (Kaplan Publishing, 2011)

  • Joseph McCall

    I find myself being in (near) harmony with the previous posts from Justin and John Mark.

    I believe that rehabilitation of criminals is most constant with my understanding of theology and the understanding of sanctification. However, I do believe that the death pentality is appropriate in some extremely rare cases. This produces a tention in my thinking- but one that has brought growth through working through the questions.

    This being said, I would not consider it the end of the world if the death pentality is banned, nor do I see myself even enthusiastically fighting to protect the death penalty- I merely view it as a valid sentance is some very particular cases.

    Like John Mark, I am not against war in all cases- but would heartedly agree that military action is went to far too quickly in most cases. War destoys, not only life, but also it destoys emotionally, pychologically, and economically.
    I do believe that it would seen to be justifiable to respond in a direct attack on a country, and that a government has a responsibility (could it even be a moral responsibility?) to react to protect those who are under a governments leadership.

    For both of these issues, I think the REAL test would come if we were in the decision making capacity.
    What choice would I make if I was on a jury? Would I support the death penalty?
    What choice would I make if I was a leader of a nation? Would I call out troops?

    In BOTH cases, I don’t know what I would do- which I believe if proper and shows a persons humanity.

    The wavering of what choice I would make does not invalidate the death penalty or the act of war in my mind, but it does show the delicately manner we should view and hold them.

    May we grow in our reflection of God as we wrestle with these topics…

  • Joseph McCall

    * “I believe IT proper” not “if”.

  • Helen

    Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences are inhumane sentences that abandon the concept of redemption and ignore the inherent dignity of young people. To see an example about how Michigan imposed a death by incarceration sentence on an innocent juvenile named Efrén Paredes, Jr. visit: and