Innocence Project’s Uplifting Moments from 2023

The Innocence Project team helped exonerate nine people in 2023, from Hilo, Hawaii to Syracuse, New York.

Best of 2023 12.04.23 By Alicia Maule

Tyrone Day attends his exoneration hearing in the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas on May 24, 2023. (Image: Montinique Monroe for Innocence Project)

Tyrone Day is exonerated on May 24, 2023 in Dallas, TX. (Image: Alicia Maule for the Innocence Project)

The Innocence Project team helped exonerate nine people in 2023, from Hilo, Hawaii to Syracuse, New York. Together, the nine clients exonerated this year persevered through a combined time of 212 years in prison and are finally home for the holidays to make up for decades of lost time with their loved ones. 

From exoneree Ian Schweitzer diving into the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 25 years to advocates coming together to participate in a rally urging New York Governor Kathy Hochul to sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, we’ve made a list of some of the most uplifting moments of the year. 

1. Ian Schweitzer jumps into the ocean for the first time in 25 years.

“Being born and raised in Hawaii, I’ve always been an ocean person,” Ian Schweitzer said. With the help of the Innocence Project and Hawaii Innocence Project, Mr. Schweitzer was exonerated on Jan. 24 in Hilo, Hawaii and celebrated by jumping into the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 25 years. Since then, Mr. Schweitzer, an avid fisherman, has participated in multiple fishing competitions. 

In 2000, Mr. Schweitzer and his brother Shawn, who was represented by the California Innocence Project, were wrongly convicted of a 1991 rape and murder based on unreliable jailhouse informant testimony — despite DNA results excluding them from the rape kit. Shawn was exonerated on Oct. 23, months after his brother’s exoneration. 

Ian Schweitzer jumps into the ocean for first time in 25 years

Norberto Peets playing basketball in New York City. (Image: Christian Rodriguez/Innocence Project)

(Image: Christian Rodriguez/Innocence Project)

2. Norberto Peets shares his love for basketball.

“In Sing Sing Prison, I played basketball all day, and it helped me stay in good shape, but, in that moment when I was playing basketball, it took a lot of stress away from me,” said Mr. Peets, who was exonerated in May 2023. “That was the only time I felt like I was a little free and not so in my mind about all the stuff I was dealing with.”

Mr. Peets was wrongly convicted of a 1996 shooting in New York after a police officer identified him as the gunman. He was exonerated after strong evidence of an alternate suspect, medical reinvestigation, and post-conviction DNA testing confirmed his innocence. Since his release, Mr. Peets has moved into his own home and reconnected with his daughter and son, who were young children at the time of his wrongful conviction. 

Read more: Basketball Was His Escape During His Wrongful Conviction. Now, Norberto Peets Is Free At Last.

 

Darrill Henry leaving the Orleans Parish Criminal Court with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin in January 2023. (Image: Claire Bangser/Innocence Project)

Darrill Henry leaving the Orleans Parish Criminal Court with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin in January 2023. (Image: Claire Bangser/Innocence Project)

3. Darrill Henry never gave up even under the threat of execution. 

“I can finally breathe,” said Darrill Henry after his exoneration hearing on Jan. 20 in New Orleans. “I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know when.” 

Nearly three years after a Louisiana judge overturned Mr. Henry’s first-degree murder conviction based on new exculpatory DNA evidence, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against him. Mr. Henry was released on bail in 2020 but had to wear an ankle monitor for three years, until his charges were finally dismissed in January. 

“This day is a long time coming for Darrill Henry,” said Vanessa Potkin, Mr. Henry’s attorney and the Innocence Project’s director of special litigation. “The State sought the death penalty. For a decade, Mr. Henry was locked away in pre-trial detention facing trial and living under the threat of being convicted and potentially executed for a crime he did not commit. He spent another eight years serving out a life sentence at Angola, one of the harshest prisons in the country. His ordeal began when he was 29, and so much was taken from him, including the ability to raise his two children and to properly grieve the death of his mother and other close family members who died over the 18 years while he was wrongfully incarcerated.

Darrill Henry leaving the Orleans Parish Criminal Court in January 2023. (Image: Claire Bangser/Innocence Project)
“I can finally breathe.”
“I can finally breathe.”

Darill Henry

Darrill Henry leaving the Orleans Parish Criminal Court in January 2023. (Image: Claire Bangser/Innocence Project)

4. Innocence Project honors Yusef Salaam’s mother Sharonne Salaam. 

Innocence Project executive director Christina Swarns and Board Member Yusef Salaam, presented Sharonne Salaam, a life-long prison and human rights advocate and co-founder of Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated, with the Award for Freedom & Justice. 

“Although public opinion was against me, my mother rose above it, stayed by my side, and fiercely advocated for my innocence,” Mr. Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five and recently elected to New York City Council, said about his mother. 

“For the 12 years I was wrongly convicted, she made sure that my name would not be forgotten, that I wasn’t just another statistic caught in a criminal legal system that too often damages members of my community, and that the system itself would one day atone for the injustice I was suffering,” he added. 

Since the exoneration of Mr. Salaam in 2011, Ms. Salaam has advocated across New York for compensation, education, and other support for wrongly imprisoned people so they can rebuild their lives upon release. “In essence, she is my modern-day Harriet Tubman,” Mr. Salaam added. 

Sharonne Salaam accepts the Freedom and Justice award. (Image: Matthew Adam Photography)
“Although public opinion was against me, my mother rose above it, stayed by my side, and fiercely advocated for my innocence.”
“Although public opinion was against me, my mother rose above it, stayed by my side, and fiercely advocated for my innocence.”

Yusef Salaam

Sharonne Salaam accepts the Freedom and Justice award. (Image: Matthew Adam Photography)

5. Tyrone Day’s family overflowed a Dallas courtroom during his exoneration. 

On May 24, about 130 of Tyrone Day’s friends, family and members of the exonerated community in Texas packed a Dallas courtroom to witness his exoneration. Mr. Day, who has seven siblings and a close-knit team that works alongside him at Restorative Farms, was in good company with dozens of people wearing t-shirts that supported him and joyously danced as he finally was vindicated of a false sexual assault conviction that cost him 26 years in prison. 

“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming,” Mr. Day said. 

“I was born and raised in South Dallas, and the opportunity to bring fresh produce here, where it’s scarce, and train the next generation of farmers is so meaningful to me.”

Read more: How Horticulturist And Exoneree Tyrone Day Has Transformed Dallas’ Food Deserts Into Thriving Community Gardens

Photo: Tyrone Day is exonerated on May 24, 2023 in Dallas, TX. (Image: Alicia Maule /Innocence Project)
“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming.”
“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming.”

Tyrone Day

https://innocenceproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/WhatsApp-Image-2023-05-24-at-12.04.25-PM-jpeg.webp

6. Rosa Jimenez’s granddaughter was born during her exoneration.

On Aug. 7, Rosa Jimenez was officially exonerated of a crime that never occurred following a 20-year fight for justice, while her daughter gave birth to her first child Alexia.

”I want to have a long, healthy life with my family, who I waited so long to be with again,” Ms. Jimenez said. “I want to see my grandchildren grow up.” 

Ms. Jimenez, who always maintained her innocence, was convicted of murder in 2005, after a 21-month-old child she was babysitting choked on paper towels and suffered a severe brain injury due to oxygen deprivation. He passed away three months later.

Ms. Jimenez’s conviction was vacated after leading pediatric airway experts affirmed the death was a tragic accident and not murder. This year, a Texas court dismissed her 2003 murder charges based on the new medical evidence establishing her innocence. 

Following her exoneration, Ms. Jimenez was able to meet her granddaughter Alexia and celebrate with her children and wife. Ms. Jimenez, who has end-stage kidney disease she developed during her wrongful imprisonment, is now looking for a kidney donor to save her life and help with medical expenses

Rosa Jimenez Is Exonerated of a Crime That Never Took Place After 20 Years

7. Carlton Lewis danced to DJ Khaled and Rihanna in the prison parking lot after being freed. 

On Aug. 10, Carlton Lewis was exonerated in Syracuse, New York, more than three decades after he was wrongly convicted and incarcerated for second-degree murder in 1992. 

As Mr. Lewis’ legal team walked him out of the prison, he blasted DJ Khaled and SZA’s “Just Us” and Rihanna’s “Work” in the parking lot before eating a massive fish sandwich. 

“I’ve known all along I’m innocent, but it feels good to finally have the court acknowledge it, to finally have no more lies hanging over my head,” Mr. Lewis said. 

Carlton Lewis danced to DJ Khaled and Rihanna in the prison parking lot after being freed.

8. Leonard Mack’s case made history as the longest wrongful conviction overturned by DNA.

Leonard Mack, a Vietnam War veteran, spent 7.5 years in prison and waited 47 years for the court to clear his name in the rape and sexual assault of a teenaged girl, which he did not commit. He was just 23 years old when he was convicted and turned 72 on the day he was exonerated. This is the longest known wrongful conviction case overturned by DNA in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Project’s records.  

“Today is my birthday; I couldn’t think of a better gift,” said Mr. Mack, whose exoneration hearing brought him and even the judge to tears. 

“[Presiding over this case] has been the highlight of my career,” said Judge Anne Minihan, who then asked Mr. Mack if she could hug him, walked over to embrace him, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. 

Leonard Mack was exonerated on Sept. 5, nearly five decades after he was wrongfully convicted of rape and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in March 1976. New DNA testing of crime scene evidence found in a post-conviction investigation by the Innocence Project and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit proved Mr. Mack did not commit the crime. Mr. Mack’s wrongful conviction is the longest to be overturned based on new DNA evidence known to the Innocence Project

9. “I feel like a firecracker, a whole fourth of July,” Perry Lott said. 

On Oct. 10, Perry Lott was exonerated by DNA after 35 years of wrongful conviction in Oklahoma, telling TikTok fans that he “feels like a firecracker, a whole fourth of July.”

Mr. Lott’s exoneration came after overcoming 30 years in prison for a 1987 rape and burglary. There was a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and he did not match the physical description of the perpetrator.

Post-conviction DNA testing performed in 2014 from the survivor’s rape kit further proved Mr. Lott did not commit this crime. The State’s case rested entirely on the survivors’ identification of Mr. Lott, which was based on a suggestive police lineup. 

Perry Lott was exonerated in Ada, Oklahoma, after 35 years of wrongful conviction and 30 years of incarceration for a 1987 rape and burglary.

Innocence Project re-entry coach Rodney Roberts at the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Rally in New York City urging Gov. Hochul to sign a bill that will prevent wrongful convictions (Image: Amanda Wallwin/Innocence Project)

Innocence Project re-entry coach Rodney Roberts at the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Rally in New York City urging Gov. Hochul to sign a bill that will prevent wrongful convictions (Image: Amanda Wallwin/Innocence Project)

10. New Yorkers called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill to help innocent people in prison. 

Freed and exonerated people, advocates, policymakers, and musicians gathered at the steps of City Hall in New York City in October to call on Gov. Hochul to help innocent New Yorkers in prison facing a nightmarish scenario. The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act (A.2878-A/S.27548), which is awaiting her signature, would fix the law to enable a legitimate legal pathway to exoneration.

New York has the third-highest number of wrongful convictions in the nation. Currently, the law makes it effectively impossible for innocent people who pleaded guilty and do not have the benefit of DNA evidence to challenge their convictions in court. This prevents countless people with credible innocence claims from getting relief in court. New Yorkers should contact Gov. Hochul and encourage her to enact the law

11. Three Innocence Project staffers ran 26.2 miles to honor their clients behind bars. 

In November, Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project’s director of special litigation, Brenda Cachay Gutiérrez, a paralegal, and Kanani Schnider, another paralegal, ran the New York City Marathon to honor their clients’ long and unjust wrongful incarceration.

“I ran on behalf, and in honor, of Mr. Jabar Walker — one mile for every year of liberty he has lost,” said Ms. Cachay Gutiérrez, who is a former high school cross-country athlete and ran the marathon for the first time.

Ms. Cachay Gutiérrez and Mr. Walker have set a goal of running a race together after he is freed from prison. Mr. Walker was exonerated on Nov. 27, just three weeks after Ms. Cachay Gutiérrez ran the marathon. 

Ms. Potkin, Ms. Cachay Gutiérrez, and Ms. Schnider each successfully ran all 26.2 miles, bringing attention to their clients Jabar Walker, Rodney Reed, Darlie Routier, Melissa Lucio, and Rosa Jimenez. 

12. Global audience tuned into ‘Just Data: Advancing the Innocence Movement’

In November, the Innocence Project’s data science & research team hosted the second annual virtual conference, “Just Data: Advancing the Innocence Movement.” It brought together experts who are focused on elevating social science and sharing the latest research from around the world to help prevent wrongful convictions. Hundreds of people across four continents tuned in to watch Innocence Project Board Member and Stanford University’s Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s keynote presentation on racial bias in the legal system as well as sessions featuring exonerees Chris Ochoa, Christopher Scott, and Innocence Project reentry coach Rodney Roberts, as well as innocence practitioners, and topical experts. 

Digital Dilemmas: Exploring the Intersection of Technology, Race, and Wrongful Conviction

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 with his brother and nephew. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

Jabar Walker exonerated in Manhattan on Nov. 27, 2023 with his brother and nephew. (Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

13. The Innocence Project and Manhattan’s DA’s Joint re-investigation reveals Jabar Walker’s innocence in double homicide — police from the notorious “Dirty 30” precinct pressured a witness to incriminate him.

Jabar Walker was exonerated in New York City on Nov. 27 days after spending his 26th Thanksgiving in prison for a crime he did not commit. “I feel great,” Mr. Walker said following his release. 

Mr. Walker was convicted of double homicide in Manhattan, following an investigation by officers from New York Police Department’s 30th Precinct. The precinct was known at the time as the “Dirty 30” due to widespread corruption amongst its officers.

The exoneration came after a joint reinvestigation by the Innocence Project and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit revealed evidence of pervasive misconduct and new evidence of innocence, including that the “Dirty 30” pressured a witness to incriminate Mr. Walker by falsely saying that Mr. Walker had admitted to the crime.  

Mr. Walker’s friends and family, including his mother and step-father, three siblings, daughter, cousins, and nephews packed the Manhattan courtroom to welcome him home. His first bite of freedom was a slice of New York-style cheese pizza as he hugged his loved ones, took FaceTime calls, and addressed reporters. He left the courthouse eager to ride the subway home for the first time in over two decades. 

What were some of the uplifting moments for you this past year? Let us know in the comments below. 

Rosa Jimenez exonerated on Aug. 7 after the Travis County District Attorney moved to dismiss a 2003 murder charge against her. (Images: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

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