Tomorrow, Oct. 2, as everybody knows, is John Carroll’s homecoming. No doubt the student body will be abuzz with excitement and JCU pride as there is a dance, a football game and parents coming to visit. It is an important day to the community here in University Heights. But little do people know that Oct. 2 is an important day to another community worldwide, a group that has far less to celebrate and is, unfortunately, lesser known. Tomorrow is International Wrongful Convictions Day.
It is a pretty strange (and morbid) sounding holiday. Frankly, it sounds like one of those days that you see on Google and don’t make much of. There is a pretty serious over-holidayization of the modern calendar, and it seems like every day has been decreed some sort of ceremonious, arbitrary “holiday” (I’m talking to you, National Doughnut Day).
The weight of dedicating a day to something has become quite watered down, thus I can understand if you have never heard of Wrongful Convictions day—I hadn’t myself until last Friday. But, I learned in the matter of an hour that this, unlike National Doughnut Day, is a cause that truly deserves its own 24-hour chunk of everybody’s time.
Last Friday, the Ohio Innocence Project, a University of Cincinnati-based group who uses law students to examine potential instances of wrongful conviction, came to JCU to tell our student body about their institution. Quietly, the Project has liberated 17 people from prison who were wrongly convicted and sentenced for a crime they never committed. I had heard of groups doing work along these lines before, but I had never really given much thought to them, or just how important their job is.
Wrongful convictions happen far more often than any of us at John Carroll, a small bubble of higher-education and affluence, realize.
Often times, those who are locked away for crimes that they did not commit come from a poorer demographic, and therefore do not have the means to attain proper legal representation. The result is hundreds serving time for offenses done by others, and sometimes, not done at all.
The Ohio Innocence Project brought two of their liberated clients with them to speak in the Jardine Room. One, Roger “Dean” Gillispie, was freed by the Project in 2011 after having served 20 years in prison for a crime that he had no part of. The other, Nancy Smith, was released from prison in 2009, having served 15 years for a crime that never even took place.
Both of their cases were a mockery of the American justice system. Each had prosecutors who went through great lengths to fabricate evidence and somehow link them to the crimes. They had everybody against them, right from the get-go, from the arresting officers to the judges.
Now, every judiciary in the world makes its fair share of mistakes (since 2000, the U.S. has exonerated 263 wrongfully convicted people, according to the Innocence Project). The court system is gigantic, and injustice is bound to happen, unfortunately. However, what concerns me is that once an injustice has been carried out, there is not an efficient way of “righting the wrong.”
These two people serve as examples of how difficult it is to get an innocent person out of prison once they have been convicted. There is almost always several decades worth of appellate procedures, all of which require legal aid and of course, a lot of money.
The whole process is inefficient and impractically expensive, especially since those serving time wrongfully are generally not so well-off. Accordingly, there are few interests groups that are willing to help, which is why the job often falls to law school students and state branches of the Innocence Project.
Perhaps keep International Wrongful Convictions Day in the back of your mind tomorrow. It may not be the most fun of the unofficial holidays, but it is certainly one that deserves some of your thought.