5 Magical Moments from the Innocence Project’s 2024 ‘Celebration of Freedom & Justice’

From the unveiling of art inspired by our clients to a captivating musical performance, the gala was full of memorable highlights.

Events 05.21.24 By Innocence Staff

5 Magical Moments from the Innocence Project’s 2024 ‘Celebration of Freedom & Justice’

Innocence Project Exoneree Advisory Council members Marvin Anderson, Johnny Hincapie, Michelle Murphy, Tyra Patterson, Termaine Hicks, Angel Gonzalez, and Stefon Morant (Image: Matthew Adam Photography/Innocence Project).    

On May 15, the Innocence Project hosted its annual gala, which celebrated seven people who were exonerated in the last year and honored changemakers who have gone above and beyond to help advance our mission of freeing innocent people from prison and preventing wrongful convictions. 

The inspirational evening included powerful stories from exoneree Tyrone Day and anti-death penalty advocate and exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth, who, together with 42 other freed and exonerated attendees that night, help drive our work every day. 

“Tonight is a chance for us to celebrate the life-changing work of our staff and volunteers … it is a chance to welcome home our recently freed and exonerated clients who represent what is possible when justice is truly delivered,” Innocence Project’s Executive Director Christina Swarns said, kicking off the night.

“Working together, through the democratic processes, we will build the world — and the legal system — that we want and need,” she said.  

The event, which honored Mr. Bloodsworth, board member and author John Grisham, forensic pathologist Michael Baden, and volunteer attorney Pia Cohler, featured musical performances by country artist Breland and culminated with the unveiling of portraits from Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who was inspired by the stories of exonerees Termaine Hicks and Rosa Jimenez

Take a look at the magical moments from the gala.

Tyrone Day addressing the audience at the 2024 “Celebration of Freedom and Justice” gala (Image: Matthew Adam Photography/Innocence Project)

  1. Tyrone Day shares his passion for urban farming in Dallas’ food deserts on center stage.

In a riveting speech, Tyrone Day reflected on gardening with his grandmother in South Dallas to being wrongfully convicted for sexual assault when he was just 19 years old. 

“Through my darkest days, I held onto a gardening lesson my grandmother left with me,” Mr. Day said. 

“I found peace in the prison’s garden and became a certified horticulturist. I mentored others, managed the prison’s greenhouse, and grew thousands of vegetables — from okra to corn to cucumbers — so that we could eat healthy.” 

After being freed 26 years later, Mr. Day co-founded Restorative Farms to combat food deserts in his community, teaching life skills to children, adults, seniors, and formerly incarcerated people and providing fresh produce to those in need. 

“Now exonerated, I consider myself something of a willow tree, swaying gently in the face of life’s storms but remaining firmly rooted in my faith, my family, and my desire to give back,” he said. 

2. Pia Cohler, Kirk Bloodsworth,  Dr. Michael Baden, and John Grisham are honored with the 2024 Champion of Justice award. 

  • John Grisham

Bestselling author John Grisham has contributed greatly to the cause of justice, including bringing attention to wrongful conviction in his only non-fiction work to date, The Innocent Man. Published in 2006, the book centers on Ron Williamson, who was wrongly convicted alongside Dennis Fritz in Oklahoma, and sheds light on the fallibility of the criminal legal system. Learning about Mr. WIilliamson — who narrowly escaped execution — led Mr. Grisham to investigate wrongful convictions and eventually join the Innocence Project’s board. For decades, Mr. Grisham has advocated alongside the Innocence Project for our clients, writing critical op-eds.

“We love being on the board, we never leave,” Mr. Grisham said upon accepting his award. 

  • Kirk Bloodsworth

The first person exonerated from death row by DNA evidence, Kirk Bloodsworth has spearheaded significant legal reforms, including successfully advocating for Illinois’ death penalty moratorium and the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, and helping abolish the death penalty in Washington and Maryland. He continues to support exonerees through his jewelry company, Bloodstones, with a mission to make hand-crafted silver rings for each of the 597 DNA exonerees. 

You have to get up, sit up, hold your head up and never give up,” Mr. Bloodsworth said on the fight for justice, receiving a standing ovation from the audience. 

  • Dr. Michael Baden

Dr. Michael Baden, a distinguished physician and forensic pathologist known for his investigative work on the murders of John F. Kennedy, Michael Brown, and George Floyd, has contributed thousands of pro bono hours reviewing causes of death in Innocence Project cases.

“Over the last three decades, Michael has generously dedicated thousands of hours of his sought-after time, professional expertise, wisdom, unparalleled analytical skills, and exceptional humanity to help overturn wrongful convictions for our clients on death row and secure freedom for many others,” said Peter Neufeld, Innocence Project’s co-founder and special counsel.

  • Pia Colher

Pia Cohler, a philanthropist and volunteer attorney for the Innocence Project, has contributed six years of pro bono legal support to the intake team, which is responsible for analyzing over 2,000 requests for representation each year, by reviewing and reinvestigating cases.

“I first learned about the Innocence Project as a law student and immediately felt there was no better use of my legal skills than helping those wrongfully ensnared by the criminal justice system, who had their lives and freedom unjustly taken,” said Ms. Cohler upon accepting the award.

Kirk Bloodsworth honored with the Champion of Justice Award (Image: Matthew Adam/Innocence Project)
“You have to get up, sit up, hold your head up and never give up.”
“You have to get up, sit up, hold your head up and never give up.”

Kirk Bloodsworth Recipient of the Champion of Justice Award

Kirk Bloodsworth honored with the Champion of Justice Award (Image: Matthew Adam/Innocence Project)

3. Celebrated Brazilian artist Vik Muniz unveils exoneree portraits 

After spending time with several Innocence Project clients, Vik Muniz applied his skill in creating artworks from non-traditional materials to make individual portraits that reflect their resilience. At the gala, he unveiled portraits of Rosa Jimenez and Termaine Hicks, both of which are made of collaged pieces of calendar paper, checks, magazines, and documents representing key dates from their cases.

“No talent will match the importance of the people I’m portraying,” Mr. Muniz, who is donating all proceeds from the sales of the portraits to the Innocence Project, said.  

4. A musical performance from breakout country artist Breland

Country artist Breland performed his hit song “The Extra Mile.” He closed the event with an acoustic version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” accompanied by 44 exonerees

“I’ve been tearing up listening to your stories,” Breland told them.

5. Gala sweepstakes winners secure seats next to John Grisham.

Innocence Project supporter Don and his guest Peggy, a longtime fan of Mr. Grisham’s books, were the lucky winners of the 2024 gala sweepstakes. They won a round-trip ticket to New York City to attend the gala and join Mr. Grisham’s table for dinner.

The Celebration of Freedom & Justice was made possible by Freedom and Justice Champions Pia Cohler, Sara Naison-Tarajano and Orestes Tarajano, and United Airlines, in addition to hundreds of supporters.  

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