Today, as part of an ongoing effort to recognize the people who work at the Innocence Project, we are highlighting the attorneys who work to free the innocent. These individuals work tirelessly to help their clients. Their efforts have helped to exonerate 178 people in the United States using DNA evidence.
When they are not defending the innocent, they play roller derby, write poetry and even twirl batons. Check out some fun and interesting facts about the people who make the work at the Innocence Project possible.
Olga Akselrod, director of intake and evaluation
Olga played roller derby under the name “Rushin’ Revolution” from 2010-2015 with the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league in New York. She primarily played the blocker position, whose job is to stop the opposing team’s “jammer” from scoring points and to assist her own team’s “jammer” to score.
“Luckily, I managed to get through 6 seasons of roller derby with no broken bones, although I did break a tooth and was constantly nursing multiple scrapes and bruises,” Olga said.
Olga continues her roller derby career as one of the coaches of the Gotham Girls’ C team, the Grand Central Terminators.
Seema Saifee, staff attorney
Seema has been to Guantanamo 10 times.
“I represented four ethnic Uighurs who were indefinitely held–without charge or trial–in GTMO for nearly a decade and brought cases in federal court to challenge their unlawful executive detention,” Seema explained.
Seema gave an interview to a German publication, Spiegel, further explaining her involvement with the prisoners.
Vanessa Potkin, senior staff attorney
In her 15 years at the project, Vanessa has helped exonerate 30 wrongly convicted people with DNA and other evidence. She was also the first staff attorney co-founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld hired.
Karen Thompson, staff attorney
Karen is a published poet.
She moved to New York in 1993 to become a poet and started as a graduate student at New York University’s Gallatin school.
“After one class in the performance studies department of Tisch School of the Arts, I discovered Patricia Williams and a seed was planted that the law could be the most effective way of addressing injustice,” Karen said.
Karen’s poetry career led her to be published in the Redbone Press’ 1997 anthology Does Your Mama Know? After receiving her MA in Performance Studies in 1998, she pursued law school.
Mandy Jaramillo, investigations attorney
Mandy is a national baton twirling champion. Along with her sister, Valerie, in 1986, Mandy competed in the National Baton Twirling Association Advanced Duet category for their age group.
“We practiced in racquetball courts and outside so that we would have spaces high enough to throw the batons and perform our spins and tricks underneath,” Mandy explained.
While her sister went on to pursue her twirling talents and became a feature twirler at a major university, Mandy chose theater, opting for the less dangerous option.
Bryce Benjet, staff attorney
Bryce is a mean juggler! He learned how to juggle in junior high and continued to practice the skill into college.
Bryce said that juggling torches helps him manage the docket here at the Innocence Project.
Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney
Nina plays in a weekly co-ed basketball league called the Old Goat Basketball Association.
Recently, she “took one for the team” by tearing the ACL in her right knee while grabbing a rebound. However, after surgery, Nina said she is healing up nicely.
Meryl Schwartz, deputy executive director
Meryl spent a week traveling in the Thar desert in India by camel as part of a two-month trip through northern India and Nepal.
“Six people and six camels–each with a local tribesman who rode with us on the camel,” Meryl recounted. “We camped under the open sky in the sand dunes, visited little nomadic settlements.”
Stay tuned to the Innocence Blog as we continue to highlight the other individuals who make the organization’s work possible.