It starts with a letter. Sometimes the letters are typed, sometimes written by hand; sometimes they are long and detailed, or there only the words I’m innocent on a single sheet of paper. When Huy Dao and his staff at the Innocence Project receive a letter from a prisoner, it is their job to determine if the case has the potential for DNA exoneration. If that exists, the staff will review evidence, speak to witnesses, and, hopefully, use science to clear their client’s name.
It’s a job Dao has been doing since 1997, when he was a recent college graduate and unsure of what he what he wanted to do with his life. The son of Vietnamese refugees, Dao says he was driven by anger--anger over race, and class--and the Innocence Project was the perfect place to fight these issues. That anger, Dao told the Christian Science Monitor, has lessened with time. “This department is tasked with dealing with the humanity of what we do,” he says, “but also with getting to as many people as possible. And anger doesn't help you keep that balance."
Today, Huy Dao serves as the Director of Intake and Case Evaluation at the Innocence Project, a position that can be overwhelming. The Innocence Project receives inquiries from over 3,500 prisoners a year and, Dao says, in most of cases, there is nothing they can do. “Those are the ones that keep you up at night,” he says. “They might have a very powerful claim that we can’t help with because the science is not going to be there. We are used to rejecting cases.”
There is still work to be done. “People are always asking how many innocent people are in prison,” Dao says. “That’s impossible to know, but if there’s a one percent error rate, we’re talking about over 20,000 people. And that’s a good error rate. The flaws of the system are not particular to the system, they are particular to human beings.” It is these flaws that the Innocence Project seeks to correct. “We take great heart in the few cases where we can help, where innocence can be proven,” he says. “Our jobs in the end are to make the Innocence Project not necessary.”