By Deborah Loh
In her 2012 article, “…than that one innocent suffer”: The Innocence Project in Singapore1, Ms Nisha Francine Rajoo tracks the history of Singapore’s first and only Innocence Project,cradled within the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Law. As one of the early members of the Project, Nisha’s article provides insights into the early development of the NUS Innocence Project – especially pertinent in this exciting period of the Project’s development.
This article will summarize selected key points of Nisha’s article, and develop these points in relation to the growth of the Project thus far.
The Innocence Movement
The forerunner of Innocence Projects is the non-profit legal clinic established at the Cardozo School of Law in New York in 19922. Innocence Projects refer primarily to pro bono clinics established by law students, which investigate potential cases of wrongful conviction and rely on DNA testing to prove innocence. The definitive student-driven nature of Innocence Projects makes them unique entities within criminal justice systems.
The proliferation of Innocence Projects around the world led to the establishment of the Innocence Network – an international affiliation of Innocence Projects and other organizations that are actively involved in casework and research pertaining to wrongful convictions. As of 2011, the Innocence Network had sixty-four member organizations3.
The efforts of the Innocence Network have shown significant results thus far. In 2010, twenty-nine individuals were exonerated through the efforts of the Innocence Network’s member organizations. These twenty-nine people had served a total of 426 years in prison before finally being exonerated.
The NUS Innocence Project
The pioneer group of students behind the NUS Innocence Project had initially only intended to create a research project on wrongful convictions in Singapore. However, the Project eventually unraveled into something much greater.
By the time the NUS Innocence Project was formally established in 2010, its main objective had evolved to functioning as a safety net of last resort within the Singapore criminal justice system. The Project achieves this objective by evaluating claims of wrongful conviction, by applicants who either write in to the Project directly or are referred to the Project by the Law Society of Singapore. A further objective of the Project is to raise awareness of the issue of wrongful convictions, and educate the public on the risk factors that could contribute to wrongful convictions.
Since 2010, the NUS Innocence Project has developed much further. Guided by experienced criminal law practitioners and faculty advisors, the early members of the Innocence Project worked on developing a standard operating procedure (SOP) that was fine-tuned over the years. They were also able to build strong working relationships with the present partner organizations of the Innocence Project, namely the Law Society of Singapore and the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, as well as garner the support of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
|‘Another key aspect of Innocence Projects, including the NUS Innocence Project, is their goal of contributing to a holistic legal education for their student members.’|
In late 2012, the NUS Innocence Project started processing cases, and handled six cases over its first four months of operation. Officially launched on 17 May 2013, the Project now hopes that the publicity garnered will increase the public’s awareness of such an avenue of recourse. Ultimately, the Innocence Project hopes to establish itself as an independent player in the criminal justice system, capable of effecting real changes and promoting public confidence in the system.
Benefitting student members
Another key aspect of Innocence Projects, including the NUS Innocence Project, is their goal of contributing to a holistic legal education for their student members. It is hoped that through analyzing real life cases and conducting face-to-face interviews with applicants, students will gain practical experience and come to understand the importance and challenges of the fact-finding process.
Having been involved in the NUS Innocence Project, this writer found her learning experience to be unique and highly dynamic. The Project handles real life cases, with applicants who have personal expectations of the Project. At the same time, the progress of each case is inevitably influenced by external factors of the investigation process that student members have to adapt to. Hence, one of the most challenging tasks faced by student members would be managing their deadlines such that they balance the applicant’s expectations against the realities of the investigation process. The guidance proffered by seniors and faculty advisors were also indispensable in supporting student members in their bid to do justice to the hopes that applicants place in the Innocence Project.
Additionally, the experience of student members inevitably varies based on the cases they undertake. Some cases conclude at an early stage, while others unfold in different ways and offer students more diverse learning opportunities. Amidst the rigors of the academic curriculum, the case investigation process can also prove trying at times. Such work may even seem futile when the investigation process comes to naught after much effort. However, it should borne in mind that the significance of the Project is not in the number of convictions successfully overturned – in fact, lower numbers may indicate greater robustness of Singapore’s criminal justice system. Rather, it would be more meaningful for student members to measure their success through the quality and thoroughness of their case evaluations.
Nisha’s article also highlights how cultivation of the right perception of the Innocence Project is crucial to its future success. As a former student leader of the Innocence Project expressed, “As long as we can find people who believe in the goals of the Innocence Project, it can go quite far”. Nisha’s article expresses the wish of the early founders of the Innocence Project, to emphasize that the Project is not positioning itself in opposition to the criminal justice system. Rather, the Project is committed to cooperating with the current players in the system, to work towards the common goal of improving Singapore’s criminal justice system and providing assistance to individuals who have been wrongfully convicted.
In addition to the abovementioned point, this writer would add that further fine-tuning of the Project’s internal systems is equally essential to its success in the long run. To this end, the Innocence Project should work on establishing an organized, secure database of all applications. This database will provide useful guidance to current and future batches of student members, as well as ensure that the Project is able to maintain accountability and its professional image.
When contacted to contribute a few words to this article, Nisha said, “I wrote the article to applaud the members for their hard work and how we hope the Innocence Project can be a prominent presence in future”.
Nisha also expressed that it was the members who first mooted the idea of the NUS Innocence Project who deserved the most credit, and that it was “their passion for the Project that spurred her on to continue to be involved in whatever way possible.”
This writer is wholeheartedly in agreement with Nisha’s sentiments. The seniors, unwavering in their dedication to the cause, deserve the greatest recognition for where the Project is today. Special mention goes out to the following student leaders of the Project – Ms Audrey Wong, Mr Jason Leong, Ms Christine Sim, Ms Magdelene Tan, Ms Natalie Chang, and Mr Daniel Chen.
To conclude, Nisha’s article stands testament to the hopes and passion of the founders of the NUS Innocence Project, a fledging initiative that still has capacity for much greater growth and development in the coming years.
Deborah Loh, 19, is a rising second-year student in the National University of Singapore (Law), as well as a member of the current Innocence Project Core Team.
This article is written in response to “…than that one innocent suffer”: The Innocence Project in Singapore ( SingLRev 5), by Nisha Francine Rajoo, which can be found here: _SingLRev_5 (reproduced with author’s and publisher’s permissions).
1 SingLRev 5
2About the Innocence Project, online: Innocence Project <http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/>
3Innocence Network Report 2011, online: The Innocence Network <http://www.innocencenetwork.org/annual-reports/innocence-network-report-2011/view>