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FAQ

 PA Innocence Project Frequently Asked Questions: 

Learn about the process, factual innocence, and how to request our help. Click on the question links or press play on the informative video below of one of our staff attorneys, Nilam Sanghvi, explaining the PA Innocence Project process to find the answers to our FAQs.

What types of cases does the Pennsylvania Innocence Project accept?

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project only takes on cases from factually innocent individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and exhausted their appeals. This includes the direct appeal and first petition for Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).

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What does factual innocence mean?

We can only take on cases for people who had no involvement in the crime for which they were convicted. This will generally mean people who had an alibi for the time of the crime, whether it was presented at trial or not.

Factually innocent is different from cases where someone may be legally innocent of a crime. So, for example, we cannot review a claim of consent instead of rape, or self-defense rather than murder.  As important as all of those issues are, we are unfortunately limited in our resources and in the scope of assistance we can offer.

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Does the PA Innocence Project take only cases with DNA evidence?

No. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project will take on cases with or without DNA evidence as long as the case meets all other requirements.

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Can I submit an application for a friend or family member?

No. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project only accepts cases directly from the convicted individual involved.

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How do I ask for help?

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project provides pro bono investigative and legal assistance to prisoners convicted in Pennsylvania who are actually innocent and whose innocence can be proven by DNA testing or by other newly discovered evidence.

When selecting cases we can only take cases from Pennsylvania state or federal court, where the convicted individual had no role in the incident that led to the conviction, and where the individual does not have an attorney or have the right to appointed counsel.

For more information on cases we do and do not take and for our full reviewing process, visit our page. If the case meets that criteria, we require a short letter from the convicted individual, not a family member or friend, explaining the following:

1.  What you were convicted of – what the charges were;

2.  Briefly what the witnesses say happened;

3.  Whether there was a trial or the you pled guilty/no contest (accepting plea deals is included in this);

4.  Why you say you are innocent;

5.   Where you are in your appeals process

Please send your letter to:

Pennsylvania Innocence Project
1515 Market Street, Suite 300
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Office telephone:

215-204-4255

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How long does it take to determine if you’ll look into a case?

We review the convicted individual’s letter and determine if the case meets our criteria. The initial determination is made in usually in less than two weeks.

If the case meets our criteria, we’ll send a detailed questionnaire to the individual to complete. Review of a questionnaire takes more time than reviewing a letter because of the large volume of requests. Therefore, it may take several months before the Project screeners decide whether or not to move a case forward. We really appreciate your patience throughout this process.

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What is the process for the PA Innocence Project to review and take on a case?

There is a four stage screening process that can lead to a petition for a new trial. Below are descriptions of each step:

Stage 1: Screening for Innocence

The first step is reviewing a convicted individual’s letter. If the person was convicted in Pennsylvania, says he had no involvement in the crime, and has exhausted all of his appeals, we can move the case to Stage 2.

Stage 2: Review

Next, we send out a detailed questionnaire for the convicted individual to complete. We also ask for copies of the appellate briefs and court opinions from the direct appeal (the appeal immediately following conviction).

A volunteer lawyer or law student will carefully examine the questionnaire and briefs to get a sense of the case. If the reviewer feels the case involves a plausible claim of innocence, we move the case forward to Stage 3.

Stage 3: Full Case Review

At Stage 3, the job of our law student interns is to get every piece of paper about the case we can: transcripts, expert reports, crime scene photos, appellate documents, witness statements, toxicology reports, and so on. If there is a possibility for DNA testing, the student will begin trying to locate that and ask it be preserved for possible testing.

The intern or volunteer lawyer will then thoroughly review the case, reading every document, and looking for potentially missing information. We will discuss the case in our staff meetings, and the intern or volunteer lawyer will ask for advice and direction from the legal staff.

If, after reviewing all of the materials we can get, we feel the case presents a strong innocence claim and there is a likelihood of discovering evidence that could prove the person’s innocence in court, we may move the case into Stage 4.

To determine which cases we take, we use a Case Review Committee – to provide an outside objective perspective on the cases. The panel is made up of experienced lawyers and always includes at least one former prosecutor. This panel decides if the matter will move forward for investigation and potential litigation. We hold these reviews approximately three times per year, presenting an average of three cases per review.

Stage 4: Investigation and Possible Litigation

Once the panel accepts a case for investigation, The Project staff investigator reviews the entire case file and creates an investigative plan. Since the Project’s interest is in revealing the truth, we start from a presumption of guilt, not innocence, and see where the facts take us. Our investigations involve speaking with every available witness from the trial, including those mentioned in pre-trial statements and motions, consulting with particular experts, and searching for physical evidence that could be subjected to modern scientific testing. The staff investigator often travels across the state seeking to speak with witnesses, family members, or others who may have knowledge of the crime. Whenever possible, our law students take part in the investigations.

At any point in the process, if the facts confirm an individual’s guilt, we will determine the case will not be pursued. But if the evidence confirms innocence, then we may be able to take on representation of the individual in court.

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