By the time Barry Scheck walked out onto the stage at the Wortham, the buildup was huge. This was the guy who cofounded the Innocence Project, responsible for the exoneration of 311 wrongfully convicted people. This was the guy who looked at then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese after Meese said that it was impossible for an innocent person to become a criminal suspect, and started the Innocence Project to try to help clear those wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Scheck spoke to a packed house on Monday evening at a program put on by the Progressive Forum. He looked exactly like Al Pacino (though oddly enough, Peter Gallagher has already played him in a movie), and he talked about his work with a mix of passion and legal speak that was both fascinating and required careful listening on the part of the non-lawyers in the crowd.
Of the 311 people who have been proved innocent since the Innocence Project got up and running in 1989, 48 were from Texas, Scheck said. Hair Balls could both hear and see the collective head shake by the audience on that, but Scheck pointed out that while Texas definitely has serious problems in the arena of wrongful conviction, we also have made some great strides forward in laws and in approach to try and protect innocent people from getting sucked into the legal system.
Scheck grew up in New York, the son of a guy from the East Side who became a professional tap dancer and went into show business from there, managing the likes of Connie Francis and Odetta.
Scheck might have been a good fit for showbiz -- he really does look a lot like Pacino -- his dad told him to get into something practical, so Scheck became a lawyer. Eventually he ended up in Texas with the Innocence Project, and was amazed to find that while the Lone Star State definitely has its troubles, the Texas legislature can get it done, pushing through a slew of legislative reforms to protect people.
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"I went back to New York and told them, 'You won't believe this! I have been to Athens. They have a real democracy in Texas. You can actually get things done,'" he said. Scheck was slated to cover a whole bunch of stuff, but he tried to tell of the Innocence Project's most recent successes, the exoneration of Michael Morton, and found it wasn't a story he could glance over.
Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, Christine Morton, in Williamson County in 1986. Lawyers representing Morton brought the case to Scheck in the first years of the Innocence Project's creation, Scheck said, but they could never get any traction on the case. As told in Pamela Collof's incredible story in Texas Monthly, Morton was finally exonerated and released.
In the wake of those findings, DNA connected the man who actually killed his wife to the murder. Earlier this month, Morton's prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was ordered to serve ten days in jail and disbarred for how he handled exculpatory evidence in the case, Scheck said.
After telling Morton's story, Scheck was about out of time. He touched on the Cameron Tod Willingham case (a man executed on evidence that was really based on junk science, Scheck said) and on the whole point of the project, which is to ensure that innocent people are never executed for crimes they didn't commit. "It doesn't matter how you feel about the death penalty," he said. "The one thing you really cannot excuse is an audacious risk of executing innocent people."