It is the most incredible experience, seeing person after person who has lived through such a horrifying experience walk up onto stage. It’s phenomenal to see them up there, supporting each other, celebrating each other, celebrating freedom.
It is a reminder to hold precious every whiff of fresh air, every moment with your family. One exoneree said that he just wanted to hold his pets and some of his stuff. Some exonerees had been in prison for 29, 30 years, proclaiming their innocence the whole time, holding the faith, staying strong. Wives, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles … they all held strong, too.
It is a testimony to the human spirit, oh my goodness. We go through a lot of hard things. Everybody has their stuff; what has happened to the wrongly convicted is unimaginable and yet most of us can relate to it somehow. Many difficulties in the human experience can seem unjust.
But can we talk about lemonade stands?
I mean, a lot of exonerees make some serious lemonade out of their lemons. Darryl Hunt. Are you kidding me?! I have so much to learn from you, Darryl. Darryl went back to the city where he was wrongly convicted twice–the second time, even with DNA evidence proving his innocence! But Darryl went back to live there when he was released from prison. He stands in his power. He stands in his power. He is a calm, grounded, living reminder of what can go awry in the justice system and what needs to be done to correct it. But he owns his innocence, and he owns his experience. He speaks it, he preaches it. He is one impressive human being.
Let’s talk about all of the attorneys and citizens who devote hours, days, weeks, lives to freeing people who are wrongly convicted. When all of the exonerees were on the stage, the ballroom was still half-full of cheering, whistling, clapping, hollerin’ folk–the folk who worked their buns off for years to free their clients, brothers, sisters, husbands, sons. Talk about service. And then many of them take what they learned from the experience and use it to free others who are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
One exoneree, at the end of their time on stage, took the mic to say thanks to those who had fought for their release. He reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” I would argue that that ballroom was full of people who luminesced during times of challenge and controversy–the exonerees who maintained their innocence in the face of pressure to confess, who read law books and found lawyers, who stood tall and strong in the face of adversity … and those on the outside who chose to fight hard and long to regain them their freedom.
It’s not easy, what they’ve been through. They’ve missed births, deaths. One exoneree was convicted of killing his own wife and children, and he was imprisoned during their funerals. Can you imagine? All the while, proclaiming his innocence. Another had met the love of his life just months before his wrongful arrest [then conviction]. She gave birth to their child, raised their child plus the two children from his previous relationship, and wed him while he was in prison. Many years later, she found the Innocence Project and eventually he was freed from prison.
A court clerk proved to be the hero in one exoneree’s release: She helped the family figure out exactly how to file for DNA testing after a judge had twice denied their request. [She found a case where the motion had been successful, copied it, and blacked out the names.] I weep, thinking of how simple and profound a contribution she made in her job that day. She took this request seriously, and she changed lives that day. She changed the lives of the people involved in the case, but now her story is out there, and that changes lives, too. It gives courage and opens possibilities. Ripples in Lemonade Lake.
At the event, I was asked why I started the Duke Law Innocence Project way back in … was it 1999? I don’t know what I was thinking. Well, truth be told, I was not thinking. I was feeling. You know when something has to be done, and you just do it, like breathing or waking up or telling the truth.
And the truth is this [thank you, Spirit]: We all make mistakes, we all have our stuff, we all need help, and we all have something to offer. God help us, fill us with love; unburden us and free us to do our work in our time here in these bodies.
We are walking, living reminders of the love that created us, the love that surrounds us, and the love that dwells in us. It’s just a beautiful thing when we shed a little bit of that love on our fellow breathers.
On a personal note, I am so grateful to Theresa Newman, who invited me to join her for this event so that I could see the fruits of my early labor–you treated me like an honored guest and got me out of the house and into some heels on a Friday night [no small task]. Thank you for remembering me, for your generosity and fortitude, and for the work you do every single day. You and Jim took that spark of hope and made it into a full-time clinic, a life-changing experience not only for the people you exonerate but for the attorneys you graduate, from those who work full-time to exonerate the innocent to those who go on to corporate jobs but take pro bono cases to help exonerate the innocent. Even just increasing awareness of the types of situations that might result in a wrongful conviction. From the bottom of my heart and the depths of my soul, thank you, thank you, thank you.