This year presented intense new challenges to communities all over the world. As the Covid-19 pandemic continued, so did its devastation. But, despite many moments of sorrow and struggle, we’ve also seen small steps forward, and celebrated moments of light.
Our year at the Innocence Project has been filled with many wins as we’ve overcome new and unique challenges. With courts opening back up this year, the wheels of justice gradually returned to their slow turn. Legislators from Oregon to Rhode Island moved forward with important policies to protect the communities they represent. And families around the world were safely reunited with their loved ones, including several of our recently freed clients.
As 2021 comes to a close, we at the Innocence Project are reflecting on the many occasions for joy we experienced this year. Below are some of our most cherished moments of the year:
1. Rosa Jimenez reunites with her children
In January, after 17 years of wrongful incarceration in Texas, Rosa Jimenez was finally freed. Ms. Jimenez, who gave birth to her son in prison, but was never allowed to hold him, was finally able to hug both her children.
2. The Innocence Project made its TikTok debut
@innocenceMalcolm spent 38 years wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana. He’s still fighting for compensation with Inn by his side. #tiktokdog #dogsoftiktok #doglove♬ Will to Live – Jacob Yoffee
This year, we were overwhelmed by the support Pervis Payne received from the incredible community of advocates on TikTok. Over 750,000 people signed our petition in support of Mr. Payne, who was facing execution in Tennessee, after learning about his case on TikTok — and we were so inspired by your action, we decided to join you on the platform.
3. A rare moment of prosecutorial accountability
In April, former Dallas County prosecutor Richard “Rick” Jackson was disbarred due to his “professional misconduct.” Mr. Jackson withheld evidence in the cases of two men — Dennis Allen and Stanley Mozee — in 2000, leading to both of their wrongful convictions. Mr. Allen and Mr. Mozee were both exonerated in 2019.
“…it’s exciting to me to know he’s been held accountable.”“…it’s exciting to me to know he’s been held accountable.”
“I’m not a person who holds grudges and I don’t have hard feelings toward anybody or towards the judicial system, but it’s exciting to me to know he’s been held accountable,” said Mr. Mozee.
4. Jonathan Smith uplifted in joy
After 21 years of wrongful imprisonment, Jonathan Smith walked out of a Maryland prison into the loving arms of his two sons in April. This moving photo captured their first embrace outside of prison walls in more than two decades.
5. Introducing “Happiest Moments”
6. A first in the country
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This year we saw powerful policy reforms across the country — in fact, our team helped pass 20 policies in 16 states this year. In a historic move, Illinois and Oregon both banned the use of deceptive tactics in police interrogations of youth. They are the first states to do so.
7. A major step to protect privacy
In another historic effort, Maryland became the first state to regulate the use of forensic genetic genealogy — a technique used by law enforcement to identify suspects by analyzing their relatives’ DNA and constructing “family trees.” The law helps protect the privacy of innocent people and recognizes the power and responsibility of DNA technologies, while advancing fairness in the system.
8. Rhode Island and Idaho adopt compensation laws for exonerees
Both Rhode Island and Idaho, two states which previously did not offer any compensation to wrongly convicted people, passed laws to address this injustice. Both states will now provide compensation to wrongly convicted people — a major win that brings the total number of states that now offer compensation to wrongly convicted people to 37.
9. A celebration dance
In October, Philip Barnett and his brother, Nathan — who was represented by the West Virginia Innocence Project and Jason Goad of McClure Goad PLLC — were exonerated after nearly 14 years of wrongful conviction. Though both brothers had been previously freed, seeing their names cleared at last was life changing, and after the occasion Philip couldn’t help but dance a little.
10. Julius Jones’ life saved
On Nov. 18, just hours before Julius Jones was scheduled to be executed, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt spared Mr. Jones’ life and granted him clemency in the form of life in prison without parole. We know too well from the 186 people who have been exonerated from death row that there are fundamental flaws in the administration of the death penalty. Granting Mr. Jones clemency prevented an irreversible injustice, but the fight for justice still continues.
11. History corrected in the case of Malcolm X’s assassination
After half a century, Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam — wrongly convicted for the assassination of Malcolm X — were exonerated in November. Their exoneration was just the first step in correcting the record of this dark moment in American history and righting an injustice that has stood for 50 years.
“While I do not need this court, these prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends, and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known officially recognized,” Mr. Aziz said at his exoneration hearing.
12. Pervis Payne removed from death row after 33 years
In the last two years, hundreds of thousands have spoken out in support of Pervis Payne, a Black man with an intellectual disability who has spent the last 33 years on death row in Tennessee. In November, Mr. Payne was finally removed from death row after the Shelby County district attorney conceded that Mr. Payne is a person with an intellectual disability, making it unconstitutional to execute him. Mr. Payne’s fight for justice continues, but his life is no longer on the line after three decades — a certain cause for celebration.