In an op-ed for the New Orleans Advocate, Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Nina Morrison and Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans, called for readers to look beyond the heartwarming feature stories about exonerations and focus on the troublesome facts about the causes and consequences of wrongful conviction.
When Maw’s client, Wilburt Jones, was released earlier this month after 46 years of wrongful incarceration, media outlets scrambled to cover the news with questions about his first meal or his welcome-home party. What stories like this often fail to include, the attorneys write, are the factors that contributed to the client’s wrongful conviction and the monumental challenges the person faces upon their release after decades in prison.
“Our clients’ pain doesn’t magically end with that welcome-home party. Nor does the joy absolve us all of the responsibility to ask why these cases keep happening. We’ve had many clients who flourished after prison — finding love, raising children, building careers, and becoming powerful spokespeople for justice reform.
But we have also lost more clients than we can bear to suicide, heart disease, and depression. Others live in “private prisons” of their own — suffering silently from nightmares, panic attacks, and family estrangement.
Joyful stories of an exonerated person’s first day of freedom leave everyone feeling too comfortable, failing to ask the hard questions: why did this happen and what are we doing to stop it? For every news story about an exoneree’s first meal, five more should ask why he was wrongly convicted in the first place.”
Jones was convicted based on the testimony of an eyewitness who admitted to police she was not sure he was the perpetrator. Why, the attorneys ask, aren’t Louisiana police required to follow recommended procedures regarding eyewitness identifications? He was put away for life after a trial lasting only a few hours. Why didn’t he get due process? If Jones is compensated, he is only entitled to $25,000 per year for a maximum of 10 years of wrongful incarceration. Is a man’s life really only worth $250,000? In order to effect real chance, Morrison and Maw write, we must confront these difficult questions.
Read the full op-ed here.