Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Innocence Network Conference in Texas. It was wonderful to catch up with the Exoneration Project’s current and former clients who were in attendance, to talk with the many dedicated and inspiring attorneys who do this work all over the United States (and internationally),and to learn about new advances in fingerprint and DNA science and legal strategies for helping our clients receive justice. All of us, as lawyers and as exonerees, lead busy lives, and sometimes it is important to have a deliberate space to catch up with each other and to take a breath and reflect on the work that we do and ways we can do it better.
To me, the best part about these conferences is meeting exonerees and hearing exonerees talk about their experiences. Our work is fundamentally about helping our clients regain their lives. The goal of our work is nothing less than to return freedom to our clients, to make it possible for them to fully experience human relationships, to have jobs, to travel, and to enjoy all of life’s pleasures, both major and minor. It is inspiring to see exonerees who have been released, who bring wives, husbands, and children to the conference, who are now running businesses, starting non-profits to help other exonerees, and just living their lives as regular people. This is what I want for all of my clients. I don’t want to minimize the many problems exonerees face upon their release. No one can fully comprehend what the experience of being wrongfully convicted means other than those who have lived it. I have not, but I know that simply being released does not somehow make up for the loss, stigma, suffering, and pain that a wrongful conviction wreaks on someone’s life. Still, we as lawyers are fighting to give clients at least the opportunity for joy, while doing everything we can post-release to help clients surmount the non-legal barriers to living peaceful and happy lives. I never get tired of seeing our released clients, who I only previously talked with in prison visiting rooms, in person out in the world, and the changes to their lives that have come from their exonerations. I have seen clients’ newborn children and felt my clients’ pride to be new fathers. I have seen our clients renew and strengthen family relationships. Many clients have told me that one of the great things about being released is being able to help their families and friends – before they sometimes felt helpless in the face of others’ needs, but their release has now allowed them to physically show up for other people and be a person others rely on in fundamental ways. I have seen clients start businesses, go to school, get jobs, and be excited to be productive and in charge of how they spend their time. Obviously not all of the changes in people’s lives post-release are that profound, but there is meaning even in the little things. I have been able to watch clients swim for the first time in over two decades, and to see their photos of travel and cruises. I have seen clients enjoy the simple pleasures of having a dog, dress in a nice suit for a party, go out to a restaurant, all things that I take for granted every day without thinking about them as privileges or noteworthy.
One of the best parts of the conference this year was a Moth performance where several exonerees and their family members got up and told stories. Some of these stories were about the path to someone’s release, some were about their lives after being released, and some were about the intersection of experiences they had in prison and thereafter. All were inspiring, but the story that struck me the most was one by Kentucky exoneree Michael VonAllmen, who talked about being released and still trying to help an incarcerated friend he met in prison who he believed was innocent. I cannot do this story justice and so will not dishonor it by retelling it here, but VonAllmen talked about ultimately being in the room when his friend passed away, and how his friend found freedom and comfort in his last moments by experiencing the love of others in the room.
This story touched a nerve with me. First, it reminds me what is at stake in our work – we are fighting to make sure that our clients have a chance at a full life, and the consequences of failure is our clients remaining in prison and missing out on everything that freedom affords. Second, however, it reminds me that as much as all of us in the post-conviction and innocence community are fighting to see our clients released and to be able to enjoy their lives post-release, we do our clients a disservice, and we miss the point of everything we’re doing by also not recognizing the value and importance of our clients’ lives while in prison, and our obligation as lawyers and as people to do what we can to help our clients experience support, comfort, joy and even love before they are released.
It’s always a hard balance for us as a project because we are, first and foremost, a legal services organization. As lawyers there are ethical limits to what we can do for clients. We make an effort to incorporate social services into the services we provide for clients, but we are primarily trained to investigate and seek relief in the courts. The best thing we can do with our limited resources is to focus our energy and attention on obtaining that legal relief, and not letting other concerns cloud our judgment or limit our legal effectiveness. However, we as a project also want to do what we can to make sure our clients are not forgotten as people in the meantime. This is also true for non-lawyers who care about exonerees. I hear people in prison talk about the experience of being forgotten by family and friends who move on with their lives when someone is wrongfully convicted, and I hear some exonerees talk about the disorienting disconnect of being released and suddenly having people return to their lives who were previously absent. This is understandable and reflects the fact that a wrongful conviction creates many victims besides the wrongfully convicted person – wrongful convictions make it very difficult to maintain familial relationships and friendships. U.S. prisons are, in most cases, designed to punish people in part by isolating them from family and friends. I have the utmost respect, admiration, and awe for the people who fight against this phenomenon and stand by the people they know who are wrongfully convicted – I have no idea how people summon the inner strength and resolve to maintain those relationships in the face of massive systems designed to destroy them. However, this is one of the costs of a wrongful conviction that we have to fight against. It does not even come close to ameliorating the costs of a wrongful conviction to make sure that the wrongfully incarcerated feel loved, but it is something that we have to fight for.
Michael VonAllmen told those of us at the conference that his friend found freedom in love. Those of us who are part of the wrongful conviction movement want to help our clients find physical freedom, but we also want to make sure that our clients experience our support friendship, and love in the meantime and thereafter. It is a daunting task, but it is the privilege and the responsibility of the work that we do.