Why the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a hub of hope for the wrongfully convicted - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 20, 2018 12:45 pm

Why the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a hub of hope for the wrongfully convicted

The nonprofit serves people imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. It's crowdfunding to send four clients to a national conference for exonerees this weekend.

An exoneree is welcomed home.

(Photo via facebook.com/PaInnocence)

If you are found innocent after a wrongful conviction, 32 states and Washington, D.C. provide compensation for your years in prison. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

In D.C., for example, exonerees might be awarded up to $200,000 for each year of imprisonment. Pennsylvania? Nothing.

This isn’t the only area where the state fails its exonerees, says Marissa Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Despite being locked away for years for a crime they didn’t commit, the state provides no social services after release, such as housing, job training, counseling or medical care.

Lack of compensation and services for exonerees is part of the reason that Pennsylvania Innocence Project is raising funds to send four of its exonerees to the annual conference of the Innocence Network in Memphis on March 23 and 24.

Another big reason is that there are few opportunities for exonerees to connect with people who understand what they’ve been through.

According to Bluestine, the conference is a way for exonerees to meet and network with people who have a shared experience, and can relate in a way that few others can. Last year, over 200 exonerees from around the world attended the conference.

“[Exonerees] have been through hell in a way that I hope never to understand,” Bluestine said. “And to get them a few days where they are treated well, with respect, and honor, and some awe by other people is just so humanizing for them and is a way to reconnect with who they are.”

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Beyond networking, the conference also includes programming for the exonerees, including art therapy. The Moth will be leading a session to help attendees tell their stories. The conference concludes with a march, led by participating exonerees, to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Donte Rollins spent 11 years in jail, facing a sentence of 62-and-a-half to 125 years, for a shooting he did not commit.

Donte Rollins is one of the four exonerees that Pennsylvania Innocence Project is sending to this year’s conference. He said he is eager to return to the conference because it’s an opportunity to connect with “people who have a better understanding of what you went through.”

Rollins spent 11 years in jail, facing a sentence of 62-and-a-half to 125 years, for a shooting he did not commit.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, along with then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, helped secure Rollins’ release.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2016 on Rollins’s case that the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that “Rollins, imprisoned for a 2006 shooting in Strawberry Mansion that left a 6-year-old boy paralyzed, had a clear right to relief due to an agreement between his attorneys and prosecutors that his trial attorney was ineffective and that he deserved a new trial.”

On the challenges of life after exoneration, Rollins said that he struggles with “trying to get an understanding what the world is like now.” He also said that he is working on “trying to get myself together.”

Rollins’s reflection on false imprisonment? “It can happen to anyone,” he said.

For the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Rollins’ warning rings true. Though it’s impossible to know exactly how many innocent people are currently imprisoned, a 2014 National Academy of Sciences study reported that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. And “we think of those cases as the best tried — you got the best lawyers, the best evidence, the most experienced — that’s 4 percent,” said Bluestine.

At least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent.

(To put this figure to scale for Pennsylvania, there are 150 inmates on death row in the state, 4 percent of which is an estimated six innocent people sentenced to die.)

The discrepancy between potentially innocent inmates and those who are actually exonerated keep the attorneys and law students of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project busy.

A lesser-known facet of the organization’s efforts, beyond the legal battles to overturn wrongful convictions, is work to improve the criminal justice system so that there will be less of an opportunity for wrongful convictions in the future. According to Bluestine, key legislation that the Pennsylvania Innocence Project advocated to get introduced this year were bills that would allow convicted individuals to access the courts through the post-conviction statute and get DNA testing.”

And the element of the group’s work that isn’t listed on Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s website: the support that it provides exonerees after they have been released.

“We find them a home, and I pay for their cellphones, and pay for a SEPTA pass. But we’re not social workers. I mean, I’m a lawyer, what do I know about that stuff?” said Bluestine.

But according to Bluestine, fair compensation for exonerees is on the Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s legislative agenda for 2019. In the meantime, staffers will keep fundraising for their exonerees to experience some relief at the Innocence Network’s upcoming conference.

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