While enrolled in Santa Clara Law’s Northern California Innocence Project (“NCIP”), I have spent the last eight months learning about the grim consequences that occur when the criminal justice system fails to protect defendants from abusive or negligent investigatory, prosecutorial, and defense efforts. However, not all is lost. There exists a critical mass of champions for justice who are helping to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. The Innocence Project was founded in New York in 1992, and since then, 68 additional sister-projects have been founded around the world. While the organizations operate independently of each other, they all work as part of the Innocence Network, and are united in their dedication to “provide pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted, and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.”
In March, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Innocence Network Conference, hosted in San Diego, California (#InConf17). Over the course of the two-day event, there were 49 panels and workshops, led by a diverse consortium of judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, exonerees, forensic scientists, investigators, and innocence project staff. Albeit diverse, the individual and collective message was clear: so long as the criminal justice system continues to make mistakes, innocent people will be wrongfully convicted. As such, the innocence organizations continue to seek justice by exonerating the innocent, improving case law, influencing policy reform to prevent recurrences, and providing support and resources to exonerees.
Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, was the keynote speaker. She highlighted three main challenges faced when addressing the inefficiencies and inequalities ingrained in our criminal justice system. Ms. Jarrett remarked that society needs to prioritize keeping people out of prison in the first place. In a culture where “talent is ubiquitous, yet opportunity is not,” it is imperative that society comes together to create avenues for all to succeed and improve their circumstances. Second, she emphasized the need to make the system fairer. And finally, she highlighted the importance of breaking the cycle of recidivism; namely, cutting off the pipeline to prison often traveled by those who are undereducated, or have been victims of sexual assault. In our role as citizens, Ms. Jarrett asked us to “commit ourselves each and every day to make sure we provide our children and grandchildren with an equitable and just society.”
The conference included technical sessions covering legal strategies to target the most common causes of wrongful convictions, such as mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, informant testimony, faulty forensics, ineffective assistance of counsel, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. There were also panels on the latest developments in forensic science disciplines, such as shaken baby syndrome, arson, and probabilistic genotyping. Additionally, there were closed sessions for the exonerees and their families, which focused on life after exoneration and the various issues that come with assimilation back into society.
In the evening, we celebrated the record breaking number of exonerees in 2016, each was introduced, one-by-one, 166 in total! There was music, dancing, and clapping—so much clapping! A small act with a powerful message, to show an abundance of support, sympathy, and honor for those whose freedom had been erroneously deprived. A round of applause and standing ovation may seem trivial, but then again, I’m still at a loss as to what words—if any—could adequately convey my feelings of empathy and compassion toward those who had endured such unimaginable injustices.
The most incredible takeaway for me is that while each exoneree was a victim of various miscarriages of justice—and at times, a series of bad actors—no one was dwelling in the past. Rather, they each viewed their experience as one that defines them for the better, and have since dedicated their lives to pay it forward. Now free, the exonerees I met are committed to giving back in many meaningful ways. Several exonerees have launched their own innocence projects, some are focusing on policy reform, others have gone to law school to influence the system from the front lines, and others are dedicated to helping those who have recently been released transition back into society. I walk away from the weekend forever humbled by the size of the exonerees’ hearts, their ability to forgive, and their capacity to thrive.
And while a large portion of the weekend focused on the exonerees, the work of the Innocence Network did not go unacknowledged. Throughout the event, the exonerees continued to express their gratitude for their innocence attorneys, and the work done on their behalf while incarcerated. Righting wrongs through the criminal justice system is a long, arduous and emotional uphill battle. A person’s freedom or life is on the line, and unfortunately there are far more upsets than victories. But the Innocence Network understands the gravity of the stakes and pushes on.
I found the experience awe-inspiring, and the entire community extraordinarily resilient. Albert Woodfox, who was released on February 19th, 2016 after spending 43 years in solitary confinement at The Louisiana State Prison, said it best: “If I stand for nothing else, it’s the indomitable strength of the human spirit.”