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If you like Barry Scheck's story, you might also like:
David Boies,
Willie Brown,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Alberto Gonzales,
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Barry Scheck
Barry Scheck
Profile of Barry Scheck Biography of Barry Scheck Interview with Barry Scheck Barry Scheck Photo Gallery

Barry Scheck Biography

Co-Founder, Innocence Project

Barry Scheck Date of birth: September 19, 1945

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  Barry Scheck

Barry Scheck was born in New York City. His father, George, had worked his way up from childhood poverty to a successful career as a manager of singers and musicians. The family suffered a devastating loss when young Barry was in elementary school. His sister died in a fire that destroyed the family home and injured his parents. Barry struggled in school for a few years after this disaster, but by high school he was excelling in his studies. George Scheck's professional relationships with African Americans drew him to the civil rights movement, and like his parents, Barry took an interest in questions of social justice. He became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements while still in his teens. At Yale University, Barry Scheck studied economic history and city planning, graduating in 1971. Accepted by a number of law schools, he chose Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California, Berkeley.

Barry Scheck Biography Photo
After completing his law degree in 1974, he co-authored the manual Raising and Litigating Electronic Surveillance Claims in Criminal Cases for the National Lawyers Guild Electronic Surveillance Project. Returning to New York City, he served as a public defender in the South Bronx at the height of its mid-'70s crime wave. As a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, he made the acquaintance of another young attorney, Peter Neufeld. The two became close friends and eventually law partners.

After three years at the Legal Aid Society, he joined the faculty of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. At Cardozo, he was one of the early practitioners of clinical education in the law. Traditional legal education in the United States emphasized theory and classroom instruction. Clinical education gives law students experience dealing with actual cases in a mentoring relationship with practicing attorneys, much as medical students pass through internships and residencies following their classroom training.

As a clinical professor, Scheck led his students through several major cases involving domestic violence. In 1987, one of these attracted massive media attention and polarized public opinion. Hedda Nussbaum, a children's book author and former editor at Random House, was living with an attorney named Joel Steinberg when the couple took custody of two children Steinberg had met through his law practice. When one of the children died after being struck by Steinberg, both adults were arrested and charged with complicity in the child's death. Witness testimony and medical evidence made it clear that Nussbaum had been repeatedly beaten as well, and was suffering from severe physical injuries. Public opinion was divided as to whether Nussbaum should be regarded as complicit in the child's death, or whether she too should be regarded as a victim. Scheck succeeded in having charges against Nussbaum dropped, and she testified against Steinberg, who was convicted of manslaughter. The trial was broadcast live on local television in New York, provoking a public debate on domestic violence.

Barry Scheck Biography Photo
In 1985, Scheck and his partner Peter Neufeld received a call from their old employer, the Legal Aid Society. A young man named Marion Coakley had been convicted of a brutal rape and robbery, despite credible evidence he could not have been in the place where the events occurred. Convinced that the jury had convicted the wrong man, Scheck and Neufeld agreed to conduct Coakley's appeal. After two years in prison, Coakley was freed when Scheck and Neufeld demonstrated through fingerprint and blood evidence that someone other than Coakley had committed the crime. In the course of their research, they became aware of the new field of DNA analysis and its potential use as evidence in criminal investigations.

Through forums at Cardozo Law School, Scheck and Neufeld generated public support for the use of DNA testing. They soon learned that while genetic science properly applied could serve the cause of justice, the same science applied haphazardly could lead to wrongful convictions as well. For six years, Scheck worked through the courts, the media, the Department of Justice, and the National Academy of Science to establish rigorous standards for the use of DNA evidence in criminal proceedings.

In 1992, Scheck and Neufeld established the Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit foundation that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted. The Project also assists all parties in the criminal justice system -- police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys -- to improve the collection and evaluation of evidence in all forms, from interrogation, eyewitness testimony, and the handling of physical evidence to the latest developments in forensic science. In its first years of operation, the Project uncovered dozens of cases of defendants convicted and imprisoned for crimes they had not committed. In these and many cases that followed, the application of modern forensic science, especially DNA evidence, proved the innocence of the accused and set them free after years of imprisonment. In 1994, Scheck was appointed to serve as a commissioner on New York State's Forensic Science Review Board, a body that regulates all crime and forensic DNA laboratories in the state.

Barry Scheck Biography Photo
Scheck's work drew national attention in 1995 when he was asked to assist the defense in the case of O.J. Simpson, the former professional football star accused of murdering his ex-wife and a bystander. At first Scheck was simply asked to advise on the admissibility of DNA evidence, but as the case developed he took an increasingly prominent role. The trial, broadcast live on network television, was the first case to receive such intense media coverage. Scheck's eight-day cross examination of a police criminologist exposed grievous errors in the handling of evidence by the Los Angeles Police Department, and was considered a major factor in Simpson's eventual acquittal. Although the case focused public attention on the significance of DNA evidence, Scheck has stated in subsequent interviews that he felt the sensational coverage of the trial, and of subsequent high-profile cases, has not been beneficial to the criminal justice system.

Scheck soon took on another highly publicized and controversial case. In 1997, the 19-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward was accused of causing the death of an infant in her care. Prosecution held that the child had died from injuries caused by excessive shaking, and by striking his head against a hard surface. Scheck, defending Woodward, produced physical evidence inconsistent with the prosecution's case, including evidence of injuries that may have been sustained before Woodward was employed by the baby's family. After a trial followed intently on both sides of the Atlantic, the jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to life in prison. Scheck filed post-trial motions, reexamining the medical evidence, and in a post-trial hearing, the judge reduced her conviction to manslaughter and her sentence to the 279 days she had already served.

Barry Scheck Biography Photo
In the year following the Woodward trial, Scheck was appointed to a two-year term on the National Institute of Justice's Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. Despite Scheck's misgivings about the publicity generated by the O.J. Simpson trial, he had more positive feelings about the lead counsel in the Simpson case, Johnnie Cochran. In 1998, Scheck and Neufeld formed a partnership with him, specializing in civil rights cases, not least those involving the excessive and inappropriate use of force by police. Together, they took the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who had been brutally beaten and violated while in police custody. While two of the policemen involved were eventually convicted and imprisoned for their role in the incident, Scheck and his partners sought civil damages from the city and from the policemen's union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which had allegedly tried to conceal the crime. In 2001, Louima accepted a settlement of $8.75 million.

In the same year, Scheck and the Innocence Project secured the exoneration of Kenneth Waters, who had already served 18 years of a life sentence for murder and robbery. This case, and the extraordinary efforts of his sister Betty Ann to win his freedom, became the subject of the 2010 feature film, Conviction. Sadly, Waters died only six months after leaving prison. At age 47, he had spent over a third of his life imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Another notable victory for the Innocence Project was the the case of George Rodriguez, convicted of rape in Houston, Texas. Substantial evidence pointed to another man, and Rodriguez was apparently at work at the time, far from the scene of the crime. In 2005, the Innocence Project succeeded in having the conviction of Rodriguez overturned, after he had spent 17 years in prison. In a subsequent civil rights case, Scheck demonstrated a pattern of misconduct in the Houston crime lab, including suppression and fabrication of evidence to secure convictions, and won a judgment for Rodriguez against the City of Houston.

Barry Scheck Biography Photo
Scheck and Neufeld shared their experiences in a 2000 book, Actual Innocence. Since the death of Johnnie Cochran, their firm has been known as Neufeld Scheck and Brustin, LLP. In addition to practicing law, Barry Scheck continues to serve on the Forensic Science Review Board of New York State, and as Professor of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where he is Emeritus Director of Clinical Education, and Co-Director of the Trial Advocacy Programs and the Jacob Burns Center for the Study of Law and Ethics. He is a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He remains Co-Director of the Innocence Project.

Misidentification by witnesses and false confessions obtained through coercion remain the most common causes of wrongful conviction in criminal cases, but in the 25 years following the introduction of DNA evidence, over 300 wrongly convicted defendants have been freed through its use. In addition to assisting the wrongly convicted, the Innocence Project advises other firms and organizations on the use of DNA evidence and promotes its use worldwide through the International Innocence Network.

Before mitochondrial DNA testing of hair samples was introduced in 2000, microscopic comparison of hair samples was the form of hair analysis used in criminal investigations. As questions arose about the past accuracy of microscopic hair analysis, the FBI ordered a review of the work of its hair analysis unit prior to 2000. The Innocence Project, working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, carried out a review of evidence provided by the FBI and in 2015 announced that 26 of the 28 examiners in the FBI's hair analysis unit had given flawed testimony in criminal cases, and that this occurred in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials that were examined. In most cases, the examiners had overstated the evidence. The cases involved 46 states, and had led to convictions resulting 32 death sentences. Of those, 14 defendants had either been executed or died in prison. The surviving defendants have been notified and it is expected that many of them may choose to file appeals. While the findings of this investigation are appalling, they do remind us of the tremendous advance that DNA testing represents for the criminal justice system, and of the enormous value of the work done by the Innocence Project.

This page last revised on Apr 25, 2016 02:13 EDT
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