It’s a million to one shot – but sometimes you’re successful, says the Innocence Project’s David Langwallner

David Langwallner, photo: Ian Willoughby

The Innocence Project is a US-based legal organisation that has succeeded in getting hundreds of wrongly convicted people out of prison. The Irish barrister, teacher and writer David Langwallner, who is now based at Prague’s Anglo-American University, set up an Innocence Project in his native country in 2009 and made headlines for winning a posthumous pardon for Harry Gleeson, an innocent man hanged for murder in 1941. When we spoke Langwallner first gave me some background on his organisation.

David Langwallner,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“The Innocence Project was set up in the US in 1991 by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and a few other people who were criminal practitioners in America.

“They discovered that a lot of their clients, particularly those on death row, were saying to them, I didn’t do it.

“They talked to a lady called Kate Germond in Centurion Ministries in Princeton, who had been lobbying successfully to get people who were wrongfully convicted out of prison. And they thought, This is a real problem.

“It started off initially at the New York office, which still is in effect the epicentre of the organisation, where Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld are, on DNA questions.

“That simply is that the DNA tests that were done 15, 20 years ago were like archaeological, they’ve way out of date.

“So new DNA tests and advances like Y-STR and low-carbon testing have exonerated hundreds of people in America.

“But then the project widened, and this is the most interesting thing.

“They found out all kinds of things that are wrong with the system: fabricated cases, police misconduct, police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct fuelled by ambition – I must get a result; I’ll do anything, I’ll conceal evidence, I’ll mislead a witness, and so on.

“Then they found things like falsely implanted memory systems: extremely disturbing stuff, where effectively witnesses – particularly children – are coached into having falsely implanted memories.

“Then there are things like faulty eye-witness identification.

“What started off as a movement in America, now there’s one in every American city, has become an international organisation.

“I was very much instrumental in coming up with the idea of a European Innocence network, because some of the cases I’ve been handling in the last couple of years have had a strong European dimension to them.

“We were thinking this was something that needs to be coordinated at the European level and I had set up the Irish project in 2009.”

Does the Innocence Project mainly work with live cases, cases of people who are still in prison today?

Illustrative photo: sakhorn38 /
“Yes, but my big success is a dead case. I had to resist the Project telling me not to take it.

“I was responsible for the first posthumous pardon in the history of the Irish state, of a man called Harry Gleeson.

“It has been a major issue in Ireland and raised a whole set of everything that’s wrong with Ireland, then and now.

“We do have some historical cases, but the main thing is to try to get over the line people who are alive.”

I understand also that part of the project involves getting law students involved?

“Yes, it’s really changed my attitude on a lot of things.

“I said to a judge friend of mine on the Court of Appeal, I’ve got this 23-year-old Lithuanian student in my Innocence Project – you should just put her straight on the Supreme Court tomorrow, she’s much brighter than all of them put together.

“It’s changed my mind, because A, young people’s minds are sharper. Experience is very useful for judgment, but the mind isn’t as sharp. And B, they devote a lot of their attention to one case.

“Actually, the whole experience has slightly changed my working methods as well in that you should only take on one or two tasks at a time.

“A lot of barristers consume themselves doing seven or eight different things, and therefore they don’t do them as well as they should.

“If you’re in the Innocence Project, we assign to a particular student case worker in a sense carriage of a particular case. That improves them.”

On what basis do you choose the cases you take on? Do you have to in a sense conduct your own case prior to accepting somebody?

“It’s like the myth of Sisyphus or something – it’s like rolling a rock up a hill, undoing that which has been done before.

“It’s extremely difficult. It’s like hundred to one shot, or a million to one shot.

“So within the structure of the Irish Project you’ve got to find something that wasn’t known at the time that changes the goalposts, or something that was known at the time the true significance of which wasn’t appreciated, to get it back into the court system.

“There was quite a lot of that in the Gleeson case and there’s some of it in others.

“But unfortunately we get a whole volume of cases and it’s depressing.

“There’s this lady who’s in prison – I won’t mention her name for confidentiality reasons – who was accused of the sexual abuse of her children. We think she’s completely innocent, but we don’t know what we can do about it.

“The difficulty becomes that the work is profoundly depressing at one level. And very emotionally draining. Simply because what you are trying to do is do the impossible and a lot of the time you’re committed to failure.

“But sometimes you’re successful.

“I would like to lobby so people understand what goes wrong with the system from the beginning, so we don’t have to do this at the end as much.

“In other words, if the Innocence Project provides an educational tool to train police officers, prosecutors, judges and judicial officers as to proper levels of conduct, that’s an accomplishment – to prevent all of this happening.”

Roughly what percentage of the people who come to you do you accept?

“We have a process of assessment. We have a desktop review, a quick review, and then we share that at a committee meeting.

“Then we work out whether we can do anything with this case.

“That might involve collecting all the documents, the prosecutor’s file, which in Ireland is called the book of evidence, or whatever we can collect, and then seeing from that if there’s anywhere to go.

“Cases collapse at different stages. Someone came into us and said, Well, it was manslaughter but I didn’t murder them. And we go, No! It has to be factual innocence.

Illustrative photo: Jason Morrison / freeimages
“Then cases collapse as you go through the process of review for the process of ascertaining whether and to what extent you can do anything with them.”

At the personal level, what do you get out of your involvement in the Innocence Project?

“It’s made me, I think, a nicer human being. The barrister caste that I am part of has tendencies towards arrogance, to which I’m not oblivious, of course.

“But if you see people who are in such anguish and pain... Not only are they in a prison cell, and I’ve done a lot of criminal work so it’s not like I lack the empathy skills, but they have the added burden of being wrongfully there in the first place.

“I’ve met some people in very bad situations.

“So I think it’s humbled me and changed me, though I didn’t set out to get that out if it.

“I find the work very emotionally rewarding. I find what’s being done is a contribution to humanity.

“It’s led to a lot of papers I’ve written educationally about lawyers and a documentary I’m supposed to be doing about lawyers.

“What good do we do? What bad do we do? I mean, I regard corporate lawyer firms as basically criminals in some respects, in terms of what they do to the planet, to humanity.

“A lot of lawyers are crooks. A lot of lawyers are fabricators.

“A lot of lawyers have no ethics. They think they do, or the play the game. It’s the ‘justice game’, as Geoffrey Robertson QC says.

“But this stuff is pure and kind of clean at one level.

“And I think what I get out of it at one level, apart from it humbling me, is a sense that I’m doing something worthwhile.

“Even if I’m killing myself financially and physically in the process.”

In recent times there have been quite a few podcasts and documentaries about people who have been wrongfully convicted. Does that help you? Does it help when it heightens awareness among the public?

“There are a lot of documentaries and a lot of journalists associated with the project.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“And there’s a kind of real crime appeal, which I wasn’t aware of at the beginning.

“When I took the Gleeson case in Ireland, for example, and had to persuade my committee to take it, I didn’t realise there was a whole literature about it, a whole fame attached to it and a whole afterlife attached to it.

“All of that is good because the press are on our side.

“I just want to complement the press in general, because the legal system is not necessarily a temple of justice.

“I’ve reached that shattering realisation at all sorts of levels. It will convict an innocent person.

“And then, as in the case of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, and there are many other examples in Ireland, it will do its best to cover up its own corruption, incompetence and stupidity.

“The literature of all the cinema and documentaries shines a light on these things, because journalists tend to be tenacious and they don’t let go of certain things.

“But on the other, the culture of celebrity with the Innocence Project I find a little unsettling.

“Because it is an important human rights issue, but it’s only one of many human rights issues, and one of many I’m interested in and have written about.”

You moved to Prague last August, David. What brought you here?

“A combination of circumstances. I was absolutely physically exhausted, because I was combining teaching, the Project and practice at a very high level and a lot of travel.

“I’ve also been doing too much travel since I arrived here.

“So I needed a break. And also my academic development as well.

“I found it hugely refreshing. It’s a beautiful, lovely city, culturally sophisticated.

“The Anglo-American University is a fabulous place and it’s been a rewarding time for me.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“The other thing is that the European Innocence Project network is in Milan now and I think we’re going to have an office of the European network in Prague.

“I’d like to spend a lot of the rest of my career, apart from writing papers and doing representation, doing international Innocence work and Prague is a useful place.

“Plus, the other thing is, my father’s Austrian and my relatives are in Salzkammergut, which is four and a half hours away.

“I can go walking and swimming there, and as you get a little older those are important things to have.”