In 1983, Marion Coakley was convicted for the robbery and rape of a woman in New York. He was identified as the rapist by three eyewitnesses, including the victim. Despite having an alibi from three other witnesses claiming he was in a different location at the time of the rape, the court sentenced him to 5 to 15 years. After his conviction, two New York attorneys, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld decided to use forensic samples recovered from the crime scene. The DNA proved Coakley had a different blood type than the perpetrator of the crime. Coakley was released after serving four years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
A few years later, Scheck and Neufeld founded the Innocence Project, with a mission to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and foster more equitable justice systems. Since its inception, the model has been replicated, improved, and adapted by other organizations worldwide. Traditionally, defense attorneys who are involved in innocence projects work pro-bono.
Yamit Sharvit-Gelbman, a seasoned criminal defense lawyer who grew up in Herzliya, had spent fifteen years working for Israeli public defense when she relocated her family to Boston. The move resulted from her husband’s involvement in a financial startup. For anyone else, especially for a mother of three young children, this could have meant a scratching halt in a successful career. However, Sharvit-Gelbman‘s passion for Human Rights found its way. She was soon appointed tenure as Visiting Scholar at Boston College under the highly awarded Innocence Program. And then came COVID and the double-whammies of a New England winter and remote study for her children, then 5, 7, and 10.
“We decided to give them a proper outdoor experience, pack up, and head West.“ It turns out this attorney’s other passion is surfing. “Naturally, our destination was San Diego, with its amazing waves and beaches.“ Coincidentally —or maybe as a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy—Yamit means little ocean in Hebrew.
Sharvit-Gelbman, soon founded the Israeli American Innocence Network (IAIN). This non-profit organization encourages establishing innocence programs in Israel. Learning from the US and transferring demonstrated knowledge and practices to Israel is vital to the model. In addition, the organization supports wrongfully convicted Israeli prisoners in the United States.
The differences between Israel’s and the US’s justice systems make for unique learning opportunities. In both countries, it is extremely hard for someone who claims to be innocent to overturn the court’s decision. According to the Israeli Public Defense, dozens of prisoners claim their innocence and ask to re-open their cases yearly. Still, the Public Defense only submits one motion annually. Israeli courts have accepted only 33 retrials in seventy-five years, primarily for minor offenses.
“We have an opportunity and an obligation to share information between the US and Israel,“ says Sharvit-Gelbman. “This is also an area where local leaders of the Jewish community can step in and be part of a great religious duty: Pidyon Shvuyim“ —the release of those imprisoned unjustly by the authorities.
To learn more about the Israeli American Innocence Network, email firstname.lastname@example.org.