Dr. Yusef Salaam: ‘If I can tell my narrative, I can get my narrative back’November 7, 2019 Category: Featured, Medium, Purpose
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project (PAIP) has fought for a decade to free wrongly incarcerated people who have pleaded their innocence in the criminal justice system.
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia was the site of the recent 10th Anniversary Gala that featured Dr. Yusef Salaam, an exoneree in the Central Park Five case, and honored over a dozen innocent people freed by the project’s work.
According to Nan Feyler, PAIP’s executive director, the nonprofit group is devoted to freeing the wrongfully convicted. To date, the organization has litigated cases for citizens who served more than 390 “lost years” in prison — ranging from 10 to over 42 years — for crimes they did not commit.
“We get 500 letters a year, and we’ve gotten 6,000 letters since we started — and that’s from Pennsylvanians desperate for our help,” Feyler said. “It can happen to anyone, and African American men are particularly vulnerable. It’s something we’re really working on, in trying to reform the criminal justice system ,to have more protections to prevent false confessions. People say, ‘How could someone confess?’ You don’t believe you’d say it. But then when the situation is right and you’re bargaining to get out of prison, people say it and recant immediately.”
Founded by attorneys, and aided by their pro bono partners, PAIP has continued to give hope to the unjustly imprisoned across the Keystone State. The PAIP-assisted exonerees at the Constitution Center included Lance Felder, Lewis “Jim” Fogle, Eugene Gilyard, Kenneth Granger, Marshall Hale, Chester Hollman III, James Hugney, Sr., Lorenzo Johnson, Han Tak Lee, John Miller, Dontia Patterson, Larry Trent Roberts, Donte Rollins, Letitia “Teri” Smallwood, Shaurn Thomas, Willie Veasy and Crystal Weimer.
Each freed person was accorded a Hero of Justice Award as their story was told via images, along with a clip from the Emmy award-winning miniseries, “When They See Us.”
The series brought renewed attention to “Central Park Five” teens, who were wrongly charged and convicted in 1989 and are now known as, “The Exonerated Five.” The impact of the highly publicized case — where a pre-president Donald Trump called for the return of the death penalty in full-page New York Times ad — was the center of discussion Salaam had with Riley Ross, a member of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project board of directors.
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“I’ve always heard that forgiveness is not for the person who wronged you, but it is for you, to be able to move forward,” Salaam said. “So, it behooves us to be able to say to ourselves, ‘How do I move forward in spite of no apology?’ We have to understand that anger, or becoming angry at something, creates the ability for you to change your condition. If you never get angry at it, you will never change your condition, right?”
“It begins with those actions that say if I can tell my narrative, I can get my narrative back and have all the power,” Salaam added. “So, taking back [my] power and strength and using it as a tool and a weapon becomes paramount.”
“I think everyone should be concerned about this issue [because] it is universal and it could happen to anyone,” Feyler said. “And, if people are outraged and shocked when they learn the facts — when they learn the DNA has exonerated someone, or someone has come forward and confessed to the crime — I think what we want to say to people is: open your mind and open your heart because this does happen.”
“The Innocence Project is here to really help,” Feyler added. “We, of course could use your support as we continue to grow with our large mission and our passion for this for this population.”