I am sitting among some of the most resilient, compassionate, and caring individuals I may ever meet. It’s a windy Friday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am in a large hotel ballroom. The lights dim and the names are read:
Audrey Edmonds, Waunakee, Wisconsin. Released February 6, 2008; 11 years served.
Henry James, New Orleans, Louisiana. Released October 21, 2012; 30 years served.
Sedrick Courtney, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Released July 19, 2012; 16 years served.
Each name is accompanied by a picture, and for those newly released, a brief video. Damon Thibadeaux, released on September 28, 2012 after 16 years served said, "the minute you give up, the minute you die." Damon, pictured above after his release and in high school, made his way to the stage to thunderous applause, high fives, and tears. He joined 100+ peers and friends, a unique group of men and women, the only ones who can truly understand Damon's struggles, pain, and joy. They understand because they too are innocent of the heinous crimes they were accused of and then committed to prison for, many with life sentences, some to death row. What brought them to this celebratory stage in Charlotte are the efforts of the Innocence Network, an association of projects from around the country whose attorneys, advocates, and students work tirelessly to overturn wrongful convictions. Many verdicts—more than 300 since 1989—have been overturned due to DNA testing, 700 more due to new evidence, witnesses, or other reasons.
Once a year the exonerees and their families come together with their attorneys and advocates, students, social workers, and a cadre of other innocence supporters at the Innocence Network Annual Conference. They share in the joy of their exonerations and support one another in the challenges of their release. Attorneys and advocates learn the latest trends in DNA testing, ethics in witness examinations, compensation statutes, among numerous other topics.
This year, Fetzer advisor Richard Gershon and I attended to experience this extraordinary event first hand. With the support of the Institute, the Innocence Network was able to provide additional programs for exonerees, including workshops on storytelling from The Moth, mindfulness and movement from Suzanne Jones of YogaHope, meditation techniques from James Gordon of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, and forgiveness training from Dr. Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University. Our partners at the Innocence Project in New York told us that the support system for exonerees is essential, but often challenged by limited (if any) compensation, family support and/or social services. For many, the annual conference offers a respite from challenges at home and a chance to reconnect, reenergize, and rejoice.
Over the two-day conference, I encountered resilience beyond reason. It was akin to peeking in on a large family reunion. Humor and talent intact, the attendees peppered the conference with laughter, conversation, and celebration. New exonerees were especially appreciated; the love was palpable. Lawyers and students and advocates, so many who work pro-bono and donate their lives to these cases, are buoyed by the spirit of their former clients—and are adored and appreciated at every introduction: “This person here is the smartest attorney on this earth…she saved my life!”
This is by no means a typical conference; it’s heavy, intense. But it’s the Saturday night jam that has become one of the most popular events of the conference. First on the stage is the Exoneree Band with Antoine Day on drums and Raymond Towler on guitar. They conduct an evening full of music, storytelling, and poetry. It’s cathartic and, for me, I see a truly compassionate community, one that looks for healing with each conversation, turn at the mic, and workshop presentation. I am privileged to be here, to witness generosity and healing at work and the struggle of being free after being imprisoned unjustly for so long. You, too, can bear witness by listening this year to WUNC (starting with today’s broadcast of The State of Things at noon and 9 pm), and by keeping an ear out for Innocence Project exoneree stories on The Story. We’ll point to them when they are posted online, and in the meantime, let’s contemplate our role as a society when it comes to seeking forgiveness and expressing compassion when we fail our fellow citizens. There’s work to do!
Gillian Gonda is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute.