By Maggie Taylor, Senior Case Coordinator
Yesterday, I had the honor of sharing an incredible day with a person who had previously lived in my mind as handwriting, case documents and a very memorable name — Freddie Peacock. I first heard Freddie’s name in 2005 when I evaluated his case for potential acceptance at the Innocence Project, and I was thinking of his letters yesterday as he finally achieved the exoneration he sought for so long.
In two weeks I'll celebrate my sixth anniversary with the Innocence Project, where I work in the intake and evaluation department. My job, and the job of eight wonderful colleagues in my department, is to help determine which cases the Innocence Project can accept. To do so, we reconstruct a case as best we can through documents: from the often-heartbreaking letters of prisoners and from lab reports, police reports, trial transcripts and other legal documents. We examine a case from every angle, looking for two things: a viable innocence claim and biological evidence that, if tested, should tell us if the person asking for our help is innocent. Our jobs, though fascinating and challenging, focus almost exclusively on lives on paper.
When Freddie first wrote to us, his request was different from many of the pleas we read. He needed our help to restore his good name. When I worked up Freddie's case in 2005, it was compelling not only for the biological evidence that could prove his innocence, but because he had been out of prison since 1982, and still fought for exoneration. In fact, Freddie had been off parole since 1992, and before that had voluntarily remained on parole because he thought he would have a better chance of proving his innocence.
He existed in my mind for years as a compelling story but he came to life when I met him on Wednesday. We arrived at his apartment on Wednesday afternoon and were greeted by Freddie, his sister Edith and his longtime friend and advocate Bill Marshall. Freddie, now 60, is a very tall man, with a genuine smile and brown tortoise shell glasses. Edith had just taken Freddie to the barber and they were planning his court outfit. Freddie picked up the tie he planned to wear the next day and handed it to Bill, who put it around his own neck, tied it, and put it on Freddie to check the length.
Freddie sat quietly as staff attorney Olga Akselrod and Cardozo student Jess Smith walked him through what would happen on exoneration day. As Edith, who was to be the family's official spokesperson at the press conference, prepared for difficult questions, we heard about how Freddie's wrongful conviction had affected the family. She talked about how worried she had been when Freddie went into prison. She feared Freddie's mental illness would make him a target of violence, and I thought about the scores of other inmates with mental illnesses who write to us for help.
The courthouse the next day was flooded with reporters and camera operators. The hearing was brief. Edith cried with relief as soon as the judge began signing the paper vacating Freddie's conviction. Olga asked for just three or four minutes to talk about Freddie's ordeal on the record; the judge granted two. No apologies were offered to Freddie. At the end of the hearing the judge wished Freddie luck, and we filed out of the courtroom just ten minutes after we had entered. Edith turned to her friend Jeanette, who had accompanied her, and said how glad she was it was all over, Jeanette silently tucked Edith's hair behind her ear.
At the press conference Olga praised Freddie for his spirit and tenacity in proving his innocence. She noted how terrifying it is to keep reaching out for relief to the same system that wronged you. Innocence Project Co-director Peter Neufeld pressed for laws mandating the recording of interrogations to help prevent false confessions, like the one Freddie allegedly gave police over three decades ago. Freddie sat with his head down, staring at his hands in his lap, as his sister described the burden of his wrongful conviction.
After the press conference we called the Innocence Project office so the staff and students could congratulate Freddie, an Innocence Project ritual. When Freddie said hello he was greeted with applause and cheers. He beamed, and laughed, and his sister told everyone on the line, "Y'all are family now." I've been one of those voices cheering from the other end of the line on many occasions, and it was great to see that call from the other end, how happy it seemed to make Freddie and his sister.
Freddie’s family held a party after the hearing in the rec room of Freddie’s apartment complex. Freddie's family and friends gathered for lasagna, chicken, fruit and sandwiches. Freddie joked with everyone and talked about basketball with Peter, who noted that he and Freddie were the same age and had the same basketball heroes. Freddie's pastor, who was out of town and couldn't make it to the exoneration, called in with congratulations. Freddie cut a white sheet cake with blue roses that said, "Congratulations, Freddie, it's been a long journey."