“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – Luke 6:31
Believe it or not, wrongful convictions can happen to anyone. Innocent people go to prison all the time for crimes they didn’t commit. All anyone has to do is be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of the most common reasons for wrongful conviction are eyewitness misidentification, junk science, indirect DNA transfers, and false accusations. As incredible as it might sound, there are hundreds of people who have been freed from wrongful convictions. And we only know about the lucky cases that made it to innocence projects with enough evidence for a second look. But tragically, for an alarming number of real people, actual justice didn’t occur until they lost 20, 30, or 40 years of their lives.
At base level, is there anything more important than our freedom? As Americans, we have the luxury of not worrying about it… but truth be told… Most people take freedom for granted until it’s gone. During my visit to the Innocence Network’s Annual Conference, I talked with exonerees, defense attorneys, prosecutors, forensic scientists, fellow podcasters, volunteers, and of course famous anti-death penalty nuns from the Catholic Church. For those not familiar, the Innocence Network is an informal coalition of independent innocence organizations dedicated to combating wrongful convictions. To date, there are 69 member organizations with 57 of those in the United States.
Not only do these innocence organizations fight for freedom but they also help exonerees when they get out of prison. As you can imagine, it can be jarring to return to civilization after being behind bars for decades. Experiences like hailing an Uber or setting up a laptop can be very difficult for people who haven’t had access to technology. On top of that, virtually all exonerees have no financial support upon release and their job prospects are extremely limited. Needless to say, such a transition can be quite debilitating.
In attendance at this year’s annual conference were over 200 freed/exonerated people who served a total of 6,030 years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. And they would still be rotting in prison but for the good people who work for and give to innocence projects. If you want proof that the legal profession does good, you should definitely follow their work online. The amount of persistence, hard work, and strength-of-spirit that goes into each innocence case is simply inspirational.
‘The Moth Storytellers‘
And speaking of inspiration… The famed storytellers from The Moth put on a special workshop to help exonerees share their stories live on stage in front of cameras and a large audience. For most, this would have been a nerve racking experience but with The Moth’s help, everyone sounded like seasoned public speakers. These true life accounts were incredibly moving and transformational. They seemed to both heal the exoneree and inspire the weary exonerator, reminding them of why they got involved in the first place.
Thanks to the kindness of both the Moth Storytellers and exonerees, I had the distinct privilege of getting a behind-the-scenes look at these workshops. As a general rule, the workshops are closed to outsiders to facilitate the creative process but the participants agreed to make an exception for me. And I’m so glad they did (much appreciated). This year’s exoneree storytellers were:
- Ronald Simpson-Bey (lost 27 years)
- Edward Dumbrique (lost 23 years)
- Perry Lott (lost 30 years)
- Juan Roberto Melendez (lost 18 years)
- Greg Mingo (lost 40 years)
- Jerome Morgan (lost 20 years)
- Gilbert Pool (lost 32 years)
‘Sister Helen Prejean‘
One of the highlights from the annual conference was getting an opportunity to interview Sister Helen Prejean. Our host Michael Semanchik talked with her about criminal justice, the importance of life, and the spiritual value of volunteer work. Sister Prejean is known worldwide for her work in criminal justice and anti-death penalty advocacy. In addition to her work in criminal justice reform, she wrote ‘Dead Man Walking’ which was adapted into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Michael’s interview with Sister Prejean can be heard here:
‘Exonerees in Person‘
Through my years at Legal Talk Network, we’ve had several exonerees on our various shows. It was wonderful to finally meet a few of them in-person:
Amanda Knox is an exoneree, journalist, podcaster, and author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, Waiting to Be Heard. Between 2007 and 2015, she spent nearly four years in an Italian prison and eight years on trial for a murder she didn’t commit. She now advocates for the wrongfully convicted, and is the co-host, alongside her partner Christopher Robinson, of the podcast Labyrinths. I had the pleasure of meeting her and her mother Edda. Here’s an episode featuring Amanda’s story:
William Michael Dillon served 28 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. The State of Florida set him free when DNA testing proved he was not linked to a key piece of evidence. He is now a singer and songwriter whose work was inspired by his long incarceration in one of the nation’s most dangerous prisons. Bill regularly plays in the Exoneree Band which headlines at innocence conferences around the country. Here’s an episode featuring Bill’s story:
Ronald Keine is an exonerated death row inmate who was just 9 days from his execution when the actual murderer confessed to the crime. Today, he is on the Board of Directors for Witness to Innocence, an anti-death penalty organization whose leading voice is that of exonerated death row survivors. You’ll see him comfortably on stage advocating for the cause. Here’s an episode featuring Ronald’s story:
“This is a healing place” – Dr. Roger A. Mitchell Jr.
Dr. Roger A. Mitchell Jr. called the annual conference a healing place during his keynote address. Although this was my first time there, I completely agree. From what I saw, exonerees often remain traumatized for many years after their release. This unique conference provides a safe place for exonerees and their families. I observed numerous emotional conversations. Some had tears and others had anger.
Perhaps the best part of the conference is the immense support everyone receives. If you need to talk, there are plenty of kind souls to talk to. If you need encouragement, there’s always a round of applause at the ready. If you need legal resources, there are facilitators everywhere.
“The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” – Abraham Lincoln
It was really great to catch up with our friends at the California Innocence Project. We have been working with them to create a new podcast (soon to launch). This new show, hosted by Michael Semanchik, will be about how innocent people get ensnared in our criminal justice system as well as what it takes to free them. The show will also feature exoneree stories in their own voices. This project has been an enlightening experience. Thank you to everyone who has lent their time and expertise.
Our Friends from CIP:
- Justin Brooks – Director
- Michael Semanchik – Managing Attorney
- Alex Simpson – Associate Director
- Alissa Bjerkhoel – Litigation Coordinator
- Raquel Cohen – Staff Attorney and Volunteer Coordinator
- Audrey McGinn – Staff Attorney
- Jasmin Harris – Associate Director of Development and Policy
- Claudia Salinas – Staff Fellow
- Sydnie Mitchell – Staff Fellow
- Jan Stiglitz – Co-Founder Emeritus