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Perspectives on Exoneration

Interviews by Yesenia Magdaleno '20, Library Diversity Fellow

In these interviews with three panelists from November's Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction event, we learn about their motivations and experiences as attorneys and activists working to free prisoners who are believed to be innocent of their crimes.

Ronnie Sandoval-Carmona, co-founder, Arthur's Center for the Wrongfully Convicted

Headshot of Ronnie Sandoval-Carmona

How did you maintain a balance in your personal life between working to free your son and also taking care of yourself day to day?

Every day I worked in constant fear that I would lose Arthur to the system. The fight felt like a race against time. I did nothing for myself, my daughter and I chose to sacrifice everything, including our home. Every penny earned went to Arthur. I had no one but my immediate family to talk to.

How can people support their wrongfully imprisoned loved ones who are in prison while they’re away?

The best advice I can give to anyone going through this horrific ordeal is to be honest with your loved one who is incarcerated. When they ask questions, no matter how dark the the situation is, remind them that the truth is strong and will come to light. For you, find someone to confide in to help keep your sanity.

How do you think institutions need to change to better support exonerees and others affected?

Since Arthur's wrongful conviction I have seen so much change. The movement is growing, but sadly there are so many people still waiting for exoneration. Keep the pressure on your governors and politicians and write letters to your legislators. Be active in the fight. Support anything that benefits the exonorees.

Nikki Pope J.D. '04, President & Director, The Pruno Fund

headshot of Nikki Pope

Based on your background in business and non-profit work, what is missing in society to support exonerees of wrongful conviction?
In a word, fairness. These are people who were let down by our criminal justice system. No, more than "let down." They were victimized. Many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but not all of them. One of our storytellers was in law school at the time she was first arrested and wrongfully incarcerated.

The various innocence projects work hard to exonerate innocent people, but the innocence projects are not equipped to provide the necessary social services and support exonerees need once they are released from prison. It can cost millions of dollars in legal and investigative costs to exonerate one person. The burden of proof is higher, too. When a person is charged and tried for a crime, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has nothing to prove as they are presumed innocent.

After conviction and sentencing, the burden shifts to the defendant who now has to prove their innocence. They must meet this burden with limited resources, usually a pro bono attorney through an innocence project, if they can find one that will take them on as a client. They typically must petition the court to get any evidence that might help their case as the prosecution typically refuses to release any evidence that might be exculpatory. Because of this, it can take years to appeal a wrongful conviction and get it overturned.

One of our storytellers, Maurice Caldwell, was in prison for more than 20 years before he was exonerated in 2011. Eight years later, he is still fighting to get the compensation that is owed to him under California law. Why? Because law enforcement keeps recommending to the compensation review board that they should deny his application - this in spite of a court of law declaring Maurice to be factually innocent.

If the justice system were more fair, more just, it would be much more difficult to convict an innocent person and much easier and faster to exonerate them. The cities and states that wrongfully convicted them would give them the help they need to recover from the physical, mental, and emotional damage of having lived in prison. Judges and prosecutors would not protect law enforcement officers (police and prosecutors and forensic scientists) who intentionally engage in misconduct. 

Do you see positive shifts of change coming within other institutions to address the issue?
The answer is a typical one in a legal setting - it depends. In some jurisdictions, positive change to address the causes of wrongful conviction are happening. In New Jersey, for example, the attorney general adopted best practices for eyewitness identification. This may seem like no big deal, but in California, there are police departments that refuse to adopt proven best practices. The reasons vary, but most have to do with the cost of making the change - never mind that we're talking about reducing the number 1 cause of wrongful conviction which means convicting fewer innocent people. Who would put a price on that?

In many jurisdictions, like Santa Clara County, the district attorney's office has set up a conviction integrity office to review convictions, especially questionable ones, and ensure that there isn't a potential wrongful conviction. Even the most unlikely jurisdictions, like Dallas, TX, have conviction integrity units. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of such a unit is only as good as the DA in charge. The Dallas DA who created their conviction integrity unit was voted out of office. Whether the conviction integrity unit continues to aggressively investigate wrongful convictions will depend on the will of his replacement.

Another institution that should be giving us hope, but has not is the US Supreme Court. In the infamous case of Connick v. Thompson (yes, Harry Connick, Sr.), the Court overturned a $14 million compensation award to John Thompson, who had been set up by the prosecution. The prosecutor who withheld evidence admitted as much and two lower courts ruled in Thompson's favor - well, the district court ruled in Thompson's favor and the appeals court had a split decision (a split decision upholds the lower court, so the district court ruling stood).

Connick appealed to the Supreme Court and in a 5-4 decision, with a ridiculously short opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Court granted what amounts to absolute immunity to prosecutors - even while acknowledging that the prosecutor in the Thompson case engaged in intentional misconduct on a number of fronts. John Thompson received no compensation for 18 years in prison - 14 of them on death row.

So you ask if I see positive change coming in other institutions to address this issue - yes in some, and not in others.

Why do you continue to do this work? How do you maintain optimism in your line of work?
I continue to do this work because I can help people who have been let down by our criminal justice system. There are more than 2,500 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 and an average of 155 new exonerations each year over the past five years. That's a lot of people who do and will need help. Many of them need a voice to tell their story - not just of wrongful conviction, but of what they are doing with their freedom. So long as they're there and willing to talk and I have even a little platform, I'm going to help them.

I maintain my optimism because of them. Each of the exonerees profiled in Pruno, Ramen, and a Side of Hope, represents so many others. People who, despite decades of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, still are optimistic and hopeful about being exonerated and released are my inspiration. Even after they're out, many of them fight as hard as we do to make sure that others are not wrongfully convicted and if they are, they get help to get exonerated and once released, they get help to regain their lives after years in prison.

When you meet people like Ronnie Sandoval, Maurice Caldwell, Paige Kaneb, and Rick Walker, you cannot help but be optimistic.

Paige Kaneb, Supervising Attorney, Northern California Innocence Project

After all you have experienced and seen, how do you stay hopeful in your career where there are a lot of doors you can’t open?

I'm lucky in that a lot of my clients have been exonerated and set free, and that makes it easier to stay hopeful. My clients often haven't had anyone fight for them in a long time and they appreciate us believing in them and putting the truth out there, even if it takes time for that truth to open the ultimate door for them.

During these politically difficult times where we are unsure of what facts or who to trust, how do you trust and support others without knowing if they are actually innocent? 

I don't have to trust a single person. I get to put a whole puzzle together, fitting in physical evidence, expert opinions, witness statements, and even word on the street. I try to keep an open mind for as long as possible and try not to get attached to any one theory, including innocence.

Why do you continue to do this work? How do you maintain optimism in your line of work? 

I continue to do this work because I love it. I search for truth and I fight for justice. I only fight for people I've come to truly believe in, and it's those very people who keep my optimism up. They have every right to be angry and miserable and distrustful because our State has imprisoned them for crimes they didn't commit. Instead, they're grateful that I show up, they're thoughtful and patient and so appreciative of life and freedom when they get to experience it.

Dec 4, 2019