BY: The Exoneration Project

Note to Self After #INConf2017

Paralegal Atzimba Parra

My sorority has brought some of the most special people into my life. The six I was initiated with know sides of me that I don’t think anyone else could ever understand. Beyond them, I’ve met members of my sorority on random occasions, and whether it be through a warm hug, a “Hello, Soror!” or a cold call to ask about a potential resource for a client, each time they make me feel like family.  Although we might have just met, we automatically share a connection through the group we belong to.

This past weekend I witnessed a bond that felt similar only it was formed under extremely different circumstances. I was honored to attend the Innocence Network Conference for the second time. While the workshops and panels were truly informative and interesting, my favorite part of attending the conference was people-watching. I loved watching the excitement in the exonerees and their loved ones as they reunited with other exonerees who they might only get to see at these events. I loved seeing the warm hugs and “Hello brother!” or “Hello sister!” as they met a fellow exoneree for the first time. It’s a familiar feeling—as if they weren’t just meeting another person, they were meeting family.

While it is heartwarming to watch people connecting in these ways, it also eats at my core knowing what connection ultimately brings these people together—a wrongful conviction. They know what it feels like to have a system that was supposedly designed to protect turn against them and take away the one thing we are guaranteed to never get back—time. They know that anger, that pain, that despair that no one else can possibly know unless they’ve experienced it themselves. The universe works in funny ways. I try to believe that everything happens for a reason, that everything is part of a greater plan, but the truth is that it’s hard for me to always believe this. I am always in awe and admiration of our clients who often express forgiveness toward the numerous factors and people that led to these dark outcomes.

One of the conference sessions that particularly stood out to me this year was on meditation and self-care strategies for innocence practitioners. During the session, we were encouraged to close our eyes and let everything go—the good and the bad.  We were no longer constricted to the definitions and characters that we identify with on a daily basis. We were free—free to just breathe and free to just be. After the exercises, we discussed some of the emotions and identities that felt good to just let go for a few minutes. Anger and stress were among the first brought up.

As the facilitator, David Wagner, pointed out, attorneys and support staff in this community often live in a constant cycle of work, stress, work, anger, work, rest, etc.

Although seeing a client get exonerated and reunited with loved ones is rewarding and always the end goal, it is easy to let the anger and frustration at the system that created these disasters take over our process.

Speaking for myself, I know that anger feels productive. It feels like resistance and it feels powerful when it’s channeled into the daily grind. However, we were challenged to think about an opposite feeling—love. Our facilitator reminded us that “Love can be a very fiery energy,” and that it can be just as motivating, if not more, than the anger we hold. Why not let our love for humanity and the desire for our clients to be able to experience all of life’s pleasures, drive us and our work? It’s definitely a lot less exhausting than anger. The session brought me back to seeing the amount of love and friendship exploding from every corner of San Diego that weekend.  It felt a lot more rejuvenating than staying angry.

Does our criminal justice system and the mere thought of a wrongful conviction still infuriate me? Absolutely. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake off that feeling. However, I can choose more. I can choose to not ignore the problems but to approach them differently. I can choose to put love and compassion at the forefront and treat them like the strengths they are. I can choose to learn from our clients and the people I met at the conference just like I do with my sorority sisters. I can choose to spend precious time and energy that is too often taken for granted to make the world better, not out of anger, but out of love.