November 24, 2021

Edwin Grimsley

Before coming to the Graduate Center to pursue a Ph.D. in SociologyEdwin Grimsley worked for 10 years at the Innocence Project. As a senior case analyst, he came up with ways of using DNA testing to prove the innocence of people who had been wrongly convicted and incarcerated. 

Grimsley continued his work at the ACLU and later as a research assistant at John Jay College’s Data Collaborative For Justice during the early years of his Ph.D. program. He recently spoke to the Graduate Center about his ultimate goals for his research.

The Graduate Center, CUNY · What It Takes to Free the Innocent and Create a Just Criminal Justice System​

The Graduate Center: What did you find most rewarding about your work for the Innocence Project?

Grimsley: I was a case analyst, and my role was to investigate cases from the time we received the initial letter up until acceptance. The Innocence Project frees innocent people from prison through DNA testing, and thousands and thousands of people write to us — mostly from prison, but sometimes we hear from family members and advocates for the incarcerated. I had hundreds of cases. One of the best parts of the job was that I helped to free seven people from prison who were innocent. 

Our cases take years and years of investigation. I knew that if I didn’t really push hard, and figure out the ways that DNA testing could be used to free wrongfully convicted people, these innocent people would spend their lives in prison. That was really impactful on my life and my research. In 2012, I began to extensively research the impact of  race on wrongful convictions. I started discussion panels on race and wrongful convictions at the Innocence Network Conference, and wrote blog pieces to help the public understand how structural systems led to the overrepresentation of Black youth and adults in wrongful conviction cases. That was kind of the thing that pointed me to graduate school, specifically at CUNY —there a lack of research on race as a factor in wrongful conviction. Over 60% of the DNA exonerations involved Black men. 

GC: What do you hope to achieve with your research?

Grimsley: I just started my dissertation, which focuses mostly on the criminalization of marijuana. What I hope to achieve is research that matters for communities of color and that looks at policy and the historical making of laws. My dissertation focuses on marijuana laws nationally, and also on the effects of these laws on communities of color. It’s not secret knowledge that we live in a racist and sexist society, and that structural racism has a real impact, even if many of these laws are seen as colorblind. The impact has been felt by communities of color, especially by Black people, and a supposedly “just” criminal justice system has been completely unfair to them. So what I hope to do is research that’s scholarly in its intent but also goes further beyond what most research does.

GC: You were quoted in a Maryland newspaper about how we need to understand the history of our justice system in order to change it. Is that history reflected today, when we learn, for example, that a nearly all-white jury was selected for the trial of the three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery? 

Grimsley: The picking of that jury is just another example of the systemic exclusion of Black people from justice. This harks back to the explicitly racist structures of the Jim Crow era, when there was almost no justice for Black people in the South. My research at the Innocence Project showed that a minor infraction could get a Black person lynched, many of whom did little or nothing to warrant death. Like Emmett Till, it could be talking to someone in the wrong way. It was mostly vigilante justice, and we’ve even seen that continue today in the South, and with Trayvon Martin, and in other cases that have had all-white juries or close to all-white juries, where justice was pretty much eliminated in terms of looking at the facts of the case or the person who’s been killed.

Even in today’s time, the criminal justice system has a real problem with determining the facts of a case, mainly because it doesn’t really consider the facts from the points of views of Black people or people of color or of the mostly poor people who get arrested for crimes. There are so many people who get arrested for very minor infractions, but these infractions have real consequences. There’s a different system for people of color and poor people of color who have to interact with the police, interact with the court system. And they have the mark of a record — of having had that contact with police, with prosecutors, with the court. 

GC: Your undergraduate degree is in biology. How did your interests change to what you’re doing now?

Grimsley: I was on a pre-med route at Wesleyan, and the thing that shifted me was 9/11 and what came after. I worked for the ACLU Immigration Rights Project after college, and did a lot of post-9/11 work visiting immigration detention centers. I went to prisons in New Jersey and New York, and seeing undocumented immigrants sitting in county jails really prompted me to change my direction. When I was at the Innocence Project, it mattered that I had a science degree, because we were looking at lab reports, working on theories of exonerations through DNA. I had to develop exoneration theories through the testing of physical and biological evidence left at the scene of the crime.

My science background actually fit my job of being an investigator very well. And now, so does having a background in trying to come up with analytical theories of innocence. I use those same analytical skills today, while I’m doing my own scholarly research. Figuring out creative strategies is what our system really needs — bold, new systemic strategies across the board. New techniques and new research and more creative ways to look at the world.

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