I’m sitting in a hotel ballroom in the basement of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Atlanta with about 350 people who work for the exoneration of wrongfully convicted and imprisoned men and women all over the United States and in eight other countries besides. We are at the annual gathering of the Innocence Network, a network of groups and projects that help free wrongfully imprisoned men and women, Among the participants here are 86 men and women who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. One of these people, James Bain served over 35 years in prison in Florida for a murder that he didn’t commit. I am here with my colleague and friend Ashley Cooper working with another dear friend, Angela Amel. Angela is a social worker with the Innocence Project in New York city and she invited me to work with a small core team of exonerees who helped design an Open Space track for exonerees this year.
Today we held a circle with about 50 people, just to hear who was in the room and what they did time for and where. It was incredible to hear some of these stories and beyond to see what these men and women are doing now. Not a single one of them has had an easy go of freedom and yet to a person they are doing what they can to free others who have been wrongfully imprisoned. This ranges from running groups, and starting organizations to meeting exonerees at the prison gates and pressing $100 bills in their hands to get them started. Unlike guilty convicts who are able to access a system of resources upon serving their time, exonerees are often assumed to be satisfied with freedom and justice itself. But when you have spent 10, 15 , 20 or more years in prisons like Sing Sing, Utica and Angola, freedom is not an easy transition to make. So to have 86 exonerees gathered here together is a precious moment, to connect and share stories, ask questions of each other and establish bonds of experience and support. Tomorrow we will Open Space with them so they can create and be in the conversations that are most important for them to be in.
Last night we went out for dinner with a couple of amazing people. Curtis McCarty served 22 years in prison in Oklahoma, 19 of them on death row for a murder he did not commit and Fernando Bermudez, who got out in November from Sing Sing where he was incarcerated for 18 and a half years. What strikes me about these two and the dozens of others I have met is that they are at the same time some of the happiest people I have ever met, and yet there is a deep core of sadness for both what was taken from them as well as what is being taken from others who are behind bars because of mistakes, lies and ignorance. They are imbued with a core purpose that awakens the potential in others, that inspires and invites and draws others to their cause. Curtis is a tireless advocate for social justice, a photgrapher and a death penalty abolition activist whose wife Amy is an ACLU lawyer. The Innocence Network is growing and expanding around a fierce core to extract truth from power and restore freedom to people who are losing decades of their lives to some of the worst prisons in the world as a result of atrocious and tragic miscarriages of justice.
I was struck today how much the United States is tipping towards a culture of presumed guilt. In receiving an award for an investigative series, two journalists from the Columbus Dispatch related the fact that the question they are most asked is “How do you know if someone is innocent?” It is a question that forgets the foundation of justice in the United States and Canada: that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It is a sign of the times that people are being forced to prove their innocence. Every person in this room is working with every ounce of will to ensure that justice is upheld in this country.
I am amazed and humbled at their work, their commitment and their stories.