Nan Feyler has been named executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — a nonprofit law firm working to exonerate the convicted innocent and to prevent innocent people from being convicted.
Feyler started her career as a public defender and has had a longstanding interest in criminal justice reform. Generocity caught up with her for a quick Q & A a week after she started at the Innocence Project.
Generocity: Tell us a little about yourself — your background, your education, interests and passions.
Nan Feyler: My career reflects my desire to improve the lives of vulnerable Philadelphians through my work as an attorney, advocate and public health professional. I have enjoyed the opportunity to work in leadership roles in wonderful organizations including serving as executive director of two of Philadelphia’s premiere nonprofits, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center and serving as deputy commissioner for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Prior to joining the PA Innocence Project, I was a Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow focusing on reducing the impact of substandard, inadequate or unstable housing on families’ involvement in the child welfare system in the city of Philadelphia. I am passionate about engaging in work to achieve equity and justice for all.
I graduated from New York University School of Law where I was named a Root Tilden Scholar based on my academic record and history of public service. I received a master’s in public health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health where I was a public health scholar. I was the Phyllis W. Beck Professorship of Law Chair at Temple University Beasley School of Law from 2015 to 2016.
I have lived in Northwest Philadelphia for 30 years with my spouse Lisa Shulock, and I have two adult children, Emma and Danny.
Generocity: What drew you to the Innocence Project?
Feyler: I am very drawn to the mission of the PA Innocence Project, to secure the freedom and exoneration for men and women in Pennsylvania imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and prevent wrongful convictions going forward.
The reality that innocent people are languishing in prison is shocking and undermines the integrity of our criminal justice system which is ripe for systemic reform. My interest and experience in criminal justice reform is longstanding. I began my career in Philadelphia as a Public Defender where I came to understand Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and saw firsthand the risks inherent in wrongly convicting an innocent person. Since then I’ve worked on several initiatives to improve the lives of people in prison or reentering society.
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Generocity: When did you start? What are you most looking forward to?
Feyler: I started August 19. I am enjoying getting to know the devoted board of trustees and staff and developing an understanding of our legal docket and the issues clients face.
I am also already deep into the planning for our 10th anniversary celebrations – in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center on October 30 and in Pittsburgh November 13. We are honored to welcome Dr. Yusuf Salaam as the keynote speaker at both events. Dr. Salaam spent eight year in prison after being wrongly convicted as a teen in the infamous “Central Park Five” NYC case. He will speak about his experience and his work since being exonerated on criminal justice reform.
Generocity: Are there any intersections between the work you anticipate doing at the Innocence project and the work you did with the City or the Nationalities Service Center?
Feyler: All the positions I have held, whether at the City Public Health Department, Nationalities Service Center or at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania are linked by my desire to improve the lives of vulnerable Philadelphians whether in the field of law, health care, housing or criminal justice.
In each I’ve been fortunate to have a leadership position allowing me to work for both individual and systemic change.
Generocity: Tell us what a typical day at the Innocence project is like.
Feyler: We are a small organization with a large mission. Our staff of 10, including the managing attorney in our Pittsburgh office, represents wrongly convicted individuals from throughout the commonwealth. As a result, the days are long and busy.
Each day, our legal staff and investigator are hard at work preparing for trials and hearings, meeting with clients and/or supervising volunteer law students and volunteer lawyers. They also consult on cases from throughout the state where innocent men or women are incarcerated and seeking exoneration.
Our social worker assists exonerated individuals in their transition back into society including facilitating a support group every two weeks. Our development and communications staff person works hard to get out the story of the wrongly convicted, and of course, raise funds to support and expand this important work.
The legal process to free and exonerate someone is long and labor intensive however we are proud that we have exonerated 15 individuals with four more freed and fighting to prove their innocence.
Generocity: What are your goals for the organization in this 10th anniversary year?
Feyler: My goals are to ensure we are providing the highest quality services to exonerate as many innocent individuals in prison as possible. That means supporting our current staff and raising funds to expand our capacity to meet the significant number of innocent individuals in prison who need our representation.
We have received over 6,000 requests from incarcerated men and women seeking our help since opening our doors 10 years ago. We have a well-developed step-by-step case review system and review every request for assistance. While we never turn anyone away, we have a backlog of hundreds of cases in various stages of review, including over 30 cases which we have determined merit our representation, but who we currently do not have the capacity to represent.
Every day an innocent person is behind bars is a travesty. But the counterweight to any despair is the inspiring, unwavering commitment of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project Board members, staff, supporters and volunteers who fight hard to exonerate those who are wrongly convicted and the courage of incarcerated individuals and their families in their steadfast belief that justice is possible.-30-
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