I want the bad guys put away. I am nervous when a judge reverses a sentence because of some procedural error. After all, how many times do we later find out that someone who should have/would have been in jail had not the overcrowded conditions or “good behavior” or some such thing gotten him out early committed yet another crime, hurting someone else’s life. So I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about signing up to help the California Innocence Project as my pro bono commitment for the year.
But I went because as the partner in charge of pro bono in my office, responsible for ensuring we have 100% participation in our office this year, I needed to make an appearance. And of course I’d heard the Innocence Project being touted for high-profile victories and was interested to hear their story.
I’m so glad I went. First, it had all the elements of a great lunch. It was over in just under an hour, the sandwiches were from the “good” deli and we had cookies and chips (not so good for my dieting attempt but were yummy), and, to the important stuff, their story was fascinating. It was a combination of CSI and one of the best days of class in Psychology 101 — they had a Powerpoint presentation that included images that caused our minds see things that were not there. Green dots jumped around a circle despite the absence of green dots actually appearing anywhere on the slide (they say), despite what our brains tell us we see. Images that appeared to move around, but in fact did not.
But the last three minutes of the presentation are the reason why I signed up to volunteer. The last three minutes had me blindly and, hopefully, discretely, searching in my purse for tissue.
Earlier in the meeting we had heard the facts about the subject of that last three minutes earlier in the presentation. A scary story about a 16-year-old girl at 11 in the morning in a not-bad part of town walking on a well-traveled street next to the Home Depot on her way to a friend’s home being hemmed in by a white truck with a battered camper shell. Then chased down, dragged into the bushes and almost raped before managing to fight off the thirty-something white male with a goatee attacker and get away. I am totally with that girl, on her side all the way. I, too, thought mornings were safe. I, too, was wearing earphones and walking in a very safe neighborhood at about 10 in the morning, minding my business and just trying to get a little exercise, when my gut told me something was wrong and I looked to my right to see a beat-up VW bug driven by what I can best describe as a huge, muscular, tattooed arm right out of Hell’s Angels attached to a bearded man staring at me as he crept along beside me. He didn’t catch me, but he came close enough that this girl’s story spoke to me. I learned a lesson indelibly printed in my soul by that incident. Mornings are not safe, even in nice neighborhoods. Bad things can happen at any time, and anywhere. All my sympathy is with that 16-year-old girl who was just trying to walk to visit a friend, and the hell some asshole created by attacking her, destroying her sense of safety, causing her nightmares she may never fully escape.
She thought the police found the guy; she was 60% sure in the photo line-up and then, in court, 100% sure that the defendant was the man who had attacked her that day. Except it turns out that it wasn’t. Too many years later DNA testing proved beyond a doubt that the bad guy was a different man who also had access to a white truck with a camper attached and who looked almost exactly like the man who had been wrongly convicted of the crime. This man who had the misfortune of looking like the bad guy had spent eight long years in jail for the crime.
That was all bad enough, but then the presenters showed a short video of the now-released, wrongly accused man who had spent almost all the years of his only son’s childhood wasting away in prison standing at the San Diego Airport awaiting a visit from the son he hasn’t been able to hug all that time. From the time his son was two. And now that boy he barely knows is 11 years old. The video started, and we watched as the man in turn watches the passengers exiting the gate from the flight his son was supposed to take to come for his first visit in many years. As he searches intently for the son he hopes he can recognize, the tension in my stomach starts to grow. I see a boy walk pass, and then another one, but neither one is him. The number of passengers exiting the gate start to dwindle and now my whole body is tense, not knowing how I will be able to stand it if he’s left there at the airport, empty-handed, alone. What if his son doesn’t get off that plane because he decided not to get on it, not to waste his time on this man he doesn’t know?
Finally, I can breathe. The freed man spots his son, and they run to one another, and the boy who is no longer so little is still young enough to be fully enveloped by the longed-for hug from his Dad, who wraps his arms around his son and holds him as if he never, ever wants to let him go. And I don’t know about the rest of the people in the room, since I was trying not to look, but I know that I could not help but cry.
I signed up to help get people who shouldn’t be in prison out. Because the bad guys should absolutely be put away. But not everyone in prison should be there, and the ones who have been wrongly accused, who are the victims of error or revenge or laziness or some injustice in our judicial system — those people need to be home with their sons and their daughters and their wives and their mothers and fathers and everyone that loves them and that they love. I am eternally grateful that I haven’t suffered from that injustice, and that there are people like the people at the Innocence Project who work to help correct those wrongs.
I hope one day only those who deserve to be in prison will be there, and I will do my little part to help make that happen, one person at a time.