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DNA exoneration starts with Innocence Project gatekeeper

Huy Dao plays a reluctant 'god' to hopeful prisoners

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The prisoner's name is one that Huy Dao has never forgotten. For years, it would resurface amid the thousands of requests for free legal aid that flood his office – an annual, meticulously typewritten plea for help, a last-ditch effort from a man convicted of rape but convinced of his innocence.

Mr. Dao turned that case down in 1997, but he still can't put it out of his mind. Maybe it was the fact that the man was from Philadelphia, where Dao grew up as the son of Vietnamese refugees, knowing what it's like to have cops look at you askance because of your skin color. Or that it smelled like a faulty conviction, but the evidence that could have provided an indisputable forensic verdict had been destroyed.

"There was something from the letters that he wrote back to me, screaming, basically, 'I have to be innocent, this can't be the end,' " recalls Dao, whose organization uses post-conviction DNA testing to help wrongfully convicted prisoners gain freedom. "It's not fair. But it's my job to evaluate whether DNA can prove innocence, and the answer [in this case] is no."

Such are the difficult decisions that echo in the conscience of the case director of New York's Innocence Project, a 15-year-old nonprofit that recently won its 205th exoneration of an innocent prisoner.

"Many clients write to us as a last resort. If we say no to their cases, they may very well die in prison," says staff attorney Vanessa Potkin, a colleague of Dao's. "Huy has had to live with that burden for so many years. Sometimes they say doctors play God – well, Huy does. You really do have someone's life in your hands."

• • •

Politicized, angered by societal injustice, and fresh out of Cornell University in 1997, Dao figured that if he was going to work for peanuts, he didn't want to be getting someone's coffee. So he took a job delivering freedom.

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