By Audrey Levitin, Director of Development and External Affairs
In Jewish tradition, the holiday of Passover retells the story of the Jewish people’s exodus to freedom after bondage. The holiday calls us to reflect on ideas that are closely aligned with the spirit of our work at the Innocence Project. In many ways, each exoneration is a modern story of redemption.
Since 1989, 305 innocent people have walked out of prison as a result of post-conviction DNA testing. With their families reunited and their names cleared, hundreds of people have had the chance to move forward and rebuild their lives. Like the Israelites during their journey to freedom, the exonerees have experienced profound injustice, followed by a series of unpredictable and miraculous events, and ultimately liberation.
Recently, three exonerees spoke to us here at the Innocence Project. Their testimony inspires our staff, our clinic students and supporters to continue our efforts on behalf of others who have been wrongfully convicted. Each of their stories is unique—but without fail, the exonerees move us with their courage, tenacity and generosity of spirit.
of Louisiana spoke to Innocence Project supporters via teleconference from Minneapolis, where he now lives and works. He was exonerated in September 2012, making him the 300th DNA exoneree in the U.S. since 1989. He had spent 15 years on death row for a crime he did not commit—the rape and murder of his teenaged cousin.
Damon is soft-spoken and tells his harrowing story in a disarmingly understated manner. Most of his years on death row were spent in solitary confinement where he was allowed just one hour per day in the prison yard. He usually exercised in his cell. Reading also helped get him through the ordeal—one of his favorite books is Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
After leaving prison, he moved to Minneapolis, where now he works at the law firm of one of his attorneys, Fredrikson & Byron. He earned his GED and plans to continue his education. When asked why he isn’t angry about his experience, Damon explained that anger would only prevent him from realizing his goals.
of Virginia recently joined the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project. He spoke to the IP’s staff and students while in New York for a board meeting.
When Marvin was 18 years old, he was wrongfully convicted of rape due to eyewitness misidentification and poor defense representation. He spent 15 years in prison and four years on parole, before he was cleared by DNA testing.
As is the case in nearly half of the exonerations, DNA testing both revealed a wrongful conviction and identified the crime’s true perpetrator—who was in fact the person originally suspected by members of the community where Marvin had lived.
A coalition of civil rights groups and church leaders fought for Marvin’s freedom. They were led by his mother, a fierce advocate for her son’s innocence. Marvin was exonerated in 2002 after serving 15 years in prison.
Before his arrest at 18 years of age, Marvin’s dream had been to become a firefighter. Today Marvin serves as Chief of the Hanover, Virginia Fire Department, where he oversees a team of 30 people.
of Texas was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and spent 25 years in prison. As in Marvin Anderson’s case, the same DNA evidence that exonerated Michael also identified the actual perpetrator.
Michael spoke to IP supporters in New York via video conference from Texas. He described how vividly he experiences life now that he is free: directing everyone’s attention to the red wall in our conference room, he explained how beautifully the color appeared to him and how everything in life had taken on an aura of the miraculous.
After years of estrangement from his family, Michael has now been reunited with his son and a granddaughter who was born not long after his exoneration. This month, Michael was married to Cynthia Chessman.
As we remember during Passover, freedom from bondage brings new challenges: the exodus from Egypt was followed by decades of hardship in the desert. The stories of the DNA exonerees also reflect the challenges of meeting freedom’s demands once it has been attained. Thankfully, the support of our generous donors allows us to aid the exonerated during what is often a difficult transition to freedom.
The incarceration and exoneration of an innocent person and the new challenges that freedom can bring are doubly meaningful to me. They represent a model for spiritual engagement—and an urgent call-to-action for all of us to transform the system that leads to such injustice, so that other innocent people can be freed.