Do you remember fighting your way through the hallways that were crowded with people jostling for a look at the various booths managed by the sub-clubs? As bright-eyed Year Ones during the sub-clubs’ showcase, we were following the crowd from booth to booth, when something stole our attention. We gravitated towards it like moths to a light source. It was a minimalist logo of a dove — simple yet elegant. When we went over to find out more about the logo and what it represented, we realised that it was the logo of the Innocence Project. That was how we came to know about this project. We have gathered the views of many different people which will hopefully give you, the reader, a well-rounded perspective of the Innocence Project.
So what exactly is the Innocence Project?
It is a student-led legal aid project under the Criminal Justice Club (“CJC”) that is well-known in National University of Singapore (“NUS”) Faculty of Law. Most law students, if not all, are likely to have heard of it. After years of groundwork by Law seniors with other stakeholders of the criminal justice system, this meaningful project was officially launched on 17 May 2013. This project was founded by Audrey Wong and was then handed over to Daniel Chen. The current Innocence Project head is Wang Ye, who, together with Ng Yeeting, Deborah Loh, Chong Joe En and Dominic Low, constitute the core team. Each member of the core team takes charge of a different aspect of the Project. They are supported by team leaders who each supervise a group of three team members in handling the applications and referrals to the Innocence Project. In addition to that, we have Assistant Professor Cheah Wui Ling and Professor Michael Hor, who serve as faculty advisors.
We have here first-hand information from Daniel Chen, the previous head of the Innocence Project who has recently graduated.
Daniel, may we know the origins of the Innocence Project in Singapore?
The Project started with my NUS Law seniors, Jason Leong and Audrey Wong. While on exchange in Georgetown, Audrey got involved in the Innocence Project there, and the two decided to bring the idea back to Singapore, reasoning that it would be a useful addition to Singapore’s Criminal Justice System.
What my seniors brought back was a desire to promote justice, by helping to build something which would strengthen the Singapore criminal justice system. They did not have a fixed idea of what an the Innocence Project should be like, but were instead very aware that to achieve their desire of promoting justice, they would have to work towards contributing to the criminal justice system, in the context of the institutions and stakeholders here. The question was, therefore, not how to bring the Innocence Project over, but how they could work toward their goal in the most effective way possible. “ Innocence Project” was merely a name around which this effort took off.
We understand that there is an Innocence Project in the United States (US) too. Was ours based on the one in the US?
Our Innocence Project was never really based on the Innocence Projects in the US, beyond our understanding of the purpose an Innocence Project served, and the name. It is important to understand that Innocence Projects in the US adopt very different models, from being a prosecution funded project to being a university module not unlike the legal clinic in NUS. There is no ‘US model’ of an Innocence Project.
The faculty advisors, Professor Michael Hor and Professor Cheah Wui Ling have provided invaluable advice and guidance to the Innocence Project. We asked them to share with us their experiences thus far.
Why did you choose to be involved in the Innocence Project?
Professor Hor: Historically, I have been involved since the very beginning when Audrey Wong, then a Year 4 student, returned from an exchange programme in Georgetown University. She had taken part in an Innocent Project there and was fired with an ambition to start one up in NUS. She consulted a number of faculty members, including me, and in the end succeeded in laying the foundation for the NUS Innocence Project. I continued to be consulted by Audrey and her successors, the latest of whom is Wang Ye, and was very honoured to be asked to be an Advisor, which I still am today. I am very happy and proud to be associated with the the Innocence Project as it is probably the most significant student-driven project that has been undertaken in NUS Law, if not in history, then certainly in recent history. It represents the kind of values which any law school of any worth should seek to support and nurture– a deep concern and commitment to those who are literally helpless, without expectation of gain or glory. It was a project which no one, except perhaps Audrey and the team she managed to inspire, thought was possible when it was first conceived, but today it is in existence. I hope that the the Innocence Project will not just thrive but will also be the model for similar student-driven projects where law students, fired by the desire to address a pressing social need, realise seemingly impossible dreams.
Professor Cheah: I believe that law school should be a place where students not only learn about what the law says but also critically reflect about how the law works, what a lawyer does, and what is a lawyer’s relationship with others in society. One of the ways they can do so is by getting involved in legal clinics, internships, or student-run organisations, such as the NUS Innocence Project. By engaging applicants, lawyers, policy-makers, and the general public in their work, students from the NUS Innocence Project learn how the law impacts different people with genuine but often divergent objectives. They also learn how the law is influenced by different institutional and societal interests. Through these experiences, I believe the students will be able to understand the law in a multi-dimensional manner and undertake a more critical reflection of the law.
Such continual and responsive reflection about the law and lawyering in society may become a luxury once a student graduates and encounters the pressures of day-to-day working life. But if developed and encouraged during a student’s formative law school years, such reflection may become a habit and practice that stays throughout his or her life. I hope that by seeing lawyering as a relational practice with others, law students will be inspired to constantly ask questions about their role in wider society and see their everyday practice of law as a vocation and service to others.
What is the scope of your involvement in this project? Do you actively guide the students or do you advise the students only when they contact you?
Professor Hor: My style is more re-active–the members of the Innocence Project occasionally seek advice and I try to be constructive. Another advisor, Prof Cheah Wui Ling, is rather more energetic and pro-active. I think that this works out well.
Professor Cheah: From its very beginning, the Innocence Project has been led and implemented by students. I think this is one of the great strengths of the Innocence Project. Their advisors, myself and Prof Hor, play an advisory and supportive role. The students keep us informed of their plans and cases, either by setting up meetings or through email, and we provide them with advice or highlight issues that they should be aware of.
We also asked Wang Ye, the current the Innocence Project head, why he decided to join the Innocence Project.
I first heard about this from one of my seniors and thought it was a project under the CJC that served a practical social purpose. I also liked that the project involved a more long-term commitment, which means that I can invest into it, learn from it, grow with it, and hopefully take pride in it some day.
Where does the Innocence Project get its cases from?
We get our cases from two sources: first, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and criminal lawyers who sometimes refer cases to us, and second, applicants directly when they write in to us. Currently, we are focusing our efforts on outreach to strengthen and build on the latter source of applications. Brochures on the Innocent Project are available at the Subordinate Courts and specific legal clinics so that people will know about us and know what to expect if they apply. This involves a trust building process which takes time.
Does the Innocence Project take on every case received?
We do not take on every case. There are three selection criteria. One, the applicant must be, or have been, in prison. Two, the applicant must have exhausted all other avenues of appeal. Three, the applicant must claim to be factually innocent. However, these criteria are flexible and we are willing to take on cases that don not technically satisfy them should the need arise. In practice we seldom reject cases based on the non-satisfaction of our selection criteria.
Recently, the Innocence Project has been conducting its recruitment. Here is some information regarding the attitudes and attributes of the members that Wang Ye and the core team are looking out for.
Wang Ye: Definitely some level of emotional maturity and the ability to handle a variety of situations that may arise in the process of liaising with the applicant and other external parties. In addition, the attitude that the members have towards the cases we receive is also important. He or she has to be able to set aside any biases and leave no stone unturned in finding solutions and pre-empting problems.
Yee Ting: Responsibility. This is not part of the school community so there is little or even no room for mistakes. The member definitely should not produce slipshod work. Also, the member needs to believe that he or she is doing something good and beneficial to the public.
Dominic: Commitment. The member needs to be responsible for his or her own work.
Are grades an important consideration in the recruitment process?
Wang Ye: I do not think academics are that important. I admit that it would be useful as a member of the Project to have some knowledge of Criminal Law, Evidence Law, and even Criminal Procedure. LAWR skills are also particularly important since there will be no one to draft neat questions and issues for us. But these are things that can be learnt. Group leaders and the core team will also be there to help. I think dedication and a good attitude are more important than their ability to score good grades.
The practical aspect of the Innocence Project is exciting yet challenging. To give you a better idea of how the Innocence Project goes about their work, we will give you an overview of the the Innocence Project work process and share with you the experiences of a team. This information was also shared with the Year Ones during the Innocence Project Welcome Tea.
After receiving the application, the second step would be to interview the applicants. This is an important part of the process because the Innocence Project members have to get detailed information from the applicants regarding the nature of their case. This helps them to decide if they will take up the case or not, and they can only do it once. The third step is to investigate the applicants’ claims made during the interview. Not everything that the applicants say during the interview is true and even if it is, it might not be provable. Last but not least, the team has to do a final evaluation where they decide on the outcome of the application: is it a meritorious claim, such that the case should be passed to a lawyer for a follow-up? If the case turns on a question of law or procedure, it would be best to hand it over to a lawyer.
Two group leaders of the Innocence Project over the past year also shared with us their take-away points from their experience. The case they worked on involved alleged sexual assault. One challenge they faced was their interview with the applicant. It was their first time interviewing someone about how a sexual act was carried out. They needed a translator as the applicant was Malay. The applicant was also rather defensive about certain questions they asked him, for example, questions about his drug history. Another challenge they faced was the time and preparation they needed for the case. Since they did not learn much about sexual offences in criminal law, they were fairly new to it and had to do substantial research on the topic. They were also not allowed to bring their computers into the prison and so they faced difficulties with regards to the transcript. Coupled with the limited interview time they were allocated (which was only two hours), we can see that the two of them faced an uphill task. Despite the challenges they faced, they eventually managed to complete their report after two to three weeks.
The Innocence Project still has a long way to go, and many of us look forward to seeing its progress. We asked Daniel and some the Innocence Project members how they think the Innocence Project will progress and where they see it in a few years’ time.
Daniel: I do not have any specific plans for the Innocence Project. I left the Innocence Project in the hands of the current core team, and I think it’s important to let them run their own show, and to take ownership of the Innocence Project. They would not be able to do so if I was too involved. In any case, I am very positive about the direction that the Innocence Project is moving in. I believe that the current core team is passionate, grounded, and most importantly, motivated by nothing more than a desire for justice. This is and will continue to be evident in the Project’s direction.
I do continue to have hopes for the Project though. I hope that every inmate who believes himself to be wrongfully convicted will know about the existence of the Innocence Project, be able to write to the Innocence Project without difficulty, and have his application fairly considered and followed up on by the Innocence Project. The numbers are not important. More important is the fact that inmates will have the above available to them.
Wang Ye: We would like to see the ironing out of scope of collaboration with our various partners. For instance, it will be good to overcome the administrative hurdles such as interview limitations in prison. Hopefully when these administrative issues are settled, we can focus more on the cases themselves. As for members, we prioritise quality over quantity. We would prefer the Innocence Project to be a tight, dedicated group since membership size is not an indication of our capacity to do good. Therefore, there probably will not be an increase in membership size in the upcoming year. But we do want to give our members a more meaningful experience, one which will teach them practical things and give them confidence in handling criminal law cases even beyond their term with the Project. Hopefully this will also inculcate some interest in them to take on criminal law related pro bono work in future. Some training plans for the Innocence Project members include inviting psychiatrists down to teach students how to identify mental illnesses and deal with applicants suffering from them. Additionally, we are trying to keep as comprehensive a record of our applications and investigations as possible so that the efforts of the previous batches can be utilised by future batches. If future batches wish to propose any reforms, they will be able to refer back to this database for statistics or examples. This is a kind of knowledge bank that we are trying to maintain that we are sure will prove invaluable in years to come.
Yee Ting: Though this project was conceived by seniors about five to six years ago, it was only officially launched last year. A lot of work has gone into the Innocence Project so we hope that more people will come to know of it. There are also worries that there is a hidden agenda behind the Innocence Project. But there really isn’t. We hope that people will recognise the sincerity of our members.
Dominic: We hope that the Innocence Project will grow with the support of our members, the legal community and the law faculty and that this support will allow the Innocence Project to gather more confidence for the criminal justice system. Even though we are student-led and run, we still have a measurable amount of impact on the criminal justice system in Singapore.
We have shared the Innocence Project’s story with you, and our hope is that you will share it with others. The Innocence Project has been in the works for many years and this has culminated in the Innocence Project now being an officially recognised student initiative. From its humble beginnings, the Innocence Project has blossomed into a meaningful project that promises to help those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. To find out more about the Innocence Project, you can visit their website at http://sginnocenceproject.com/, where you can learn more about the Innocence Project as well as access articles that were written by its members. We look forward to what the Innocence Project has in store for us in the coming years and we are certain that its dedicated members will not disappoint.