The Bond Between Innocent Prisoners

Innocent prisoners share a bond that goes beyond words. We all share the same nightmare. Some of us have made it out, while others, like me, are still fighting to be exonerated. We might have spent time in the same prison or read about each other’s stories, or met each other upon exoneration. On some occasions, while still wrongfully imprisoned, we reached out to an exoneree for support — that’s how I met one of my best friends, Jeffrey Deskovic.

I heard about Jeffrey through my brother Tyrone. Every time Tyrone would write me, he’d send me a section from The Westchester Guardian, a local weekly newspaper where Jeff had a column called “Truth & Justice.” He almost exclusively wrote about wrongful conviction — whether exonerations, compensation cases, deficiencies in the legal system that lead to wrongful conviction, and ongoing wrongful conviction cases that years later ended in exoneration.

Occasionally though he would write about other criminal justice issues, such as capital punishment, prison reform, and parole. All innocent prisoners can relate to the many struggles each of us endures, and we all appreciate attention that is brought to the problem of wrongful conviction; an exoneree doing so through the unusual role of being a member of the media made it extra special and meaningful for me.

Years later, committing $1.5 million of compensation that he received, Jeff decided to start The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, whose purpose was to free the wrongfully convicted in both DNA and Non-DNA cases, but also prevent them by raising awareness and seeking changes in the law, while also helping exonerees reintegrate back into society following exoneration. My brother sent me the address for the Foundation. I wrote Jeffrey, not for legal assistance, but to share my story and to request back issues of his column.

To my surprise, a couple weeks later I received a package from him containing over one hundred articles he had written. I wrote him and thanked him. I took the articles to the prison library and spent the little money I had to make copies to share them with Eugene Gilyard, who was exonerated in 2014 after spending 15 years in prison wrongfully in Pennsylvania, and another man whose claim of innocence I credited.

While all of this was going on, I received the news that we all dream about: my conviction had been vacated, and I was going home. It was October 2011. After 16 and a half years had been stolen from my life, I was released on Jan. 18, 2012, pending the prosecutor’s final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Since I won my appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence, it was the same as a “not guilty” verdict, barring a retrial. Shortly after I got home, Jeffrey reached out to me and we instantly became best friends. Not only did Jeffrey introduce me to other exonerated former prisoners but, he let me use his platform to tell my story. His Foundation also helped me reintegrate back into society, taking me shopping, keeping regular contact with me which was a stabilizing factor in an uncertain world, and helping me find a job.

Unfortunately, my nightmare was not over yet. On May 29, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated my conviction with a per curiam decision. This meant my attorneys was not allowed the usual opportunity to file briefs or make oral arguments. On June 14, 2012, Jeffrey drove me from New York back to Pennsylvania to again be incarcerated for a crime I was innocent of, as an unavoidable step in once again fighting to prove my innocence. He vowed to do everything in his power to help me.

Since then, Jeffrey and his Foundation has been involved in everything I have going on to secure my freedom. From my legal situation; to rallies to bring awareness to my injustice; keeping my case alive in the media; visits whenever time permits; phone calls; and whatever else he can do. Right now, I’m living every exoneree’s worst nightmare — being reincarcerated for a crime we did not commit upon the court system changing their mind.

The bond we innocent prisoners share is special. It’s sad that we’ve had to suffer this terrible injustice, while so many of us are still enduring the torture that comes with being innocent in prison. Some of us will be exonerated; others never will but might be released on parole, while others will never know freedom in any form — we will simply die in prison for a crime we never committed. On a few occasions, such as Timothy Cole and Frankie Lee Smith, are exonerated posthumously. But usually not even that minor measure of justice is achieved.

We all seek, especially while still wrongfully incarcerated, to keep our stories alive in the media, though this too often is a challenge. Many news entities are only willing to cover cases once an exoneration has been achieved. There are numerous benefits in media pieces post-exoneration: shining a light on an injustice; raising awareness about wrongful convictions; and illustrating that the frequency of wrongful convictions is much more than an occasional, rare event. Last year, in 2014, 125 people were exonerated, while 91 were in 2013 and 2012. I believe that this is simply the surface of the problem, and that 15-20 percent of all prisoners have been wrongfully convicted.

But clearly the most important, critical time for news coverage, is when the wrongful conviction is still being fought. Why? Sometimes this has led to obtaining of legal representation — critical in seeking to overturn a wrongful conviction, while at other times it has let the prosecuting agency know that the public is watching a case, that it can’t simply be swept under the rug without possible political repercussions in the form of voters pulling the level for their political opponents. Unfortunately, sometimes those in authority won’t do what is right based on morality, but instead are motivated by votes or popularity of an issue.

Our stories are often shocking, often involving misconduct the average citizen would never dream law enforcement, prosecutors, or forensic scientists would engage in, often working together –the kind of activities and coordination that many people think only happens in movies and books. As I write this article, many of us await court decisions that can either end our torture or prolong it. Nonetheless, though some progress has been made, many news entities are unwilling to produce media pieces while the wrongfully convicted prisoner is still incarcerated. While I get that many prisoners may write claiming innocence while they are in fact guilty, some of us are actually innocent, and cases which allege exceptional circumstances and facts are worth the investment of time it would take to do the research and digging needed to have a proper foundation for producing media pieces about cases.

Innocent prisoners share a closeness so deep that when speaking about our injustices, we can sometimes finish each other’s sentences. There’s no one else who can relate to our particular kind of pain. When the fortunate innocent prisoners who do make it out of here encounter each other on the outside, even if they never met before, it’s like seeing a long lost brother or sister. In a way, we are each other’s therapy; a kind that no doctor can ever give us.

Through all of our journeys — and many of them are far from over — a victory for one of us is treated as a win for all of us. They give us all energy and inspiration, and cause us to double down on our commitment to not give up.

While some exonerees simply want to forget about what happened to them and never speak about it, while still others are psychologically broken, yet some have been blessed with the inner fortitude to remain mentally strong and to metaphorically fight for those of us they have left behind, whether their names are known or unknown.

Jeff and Derrick Hamilton, exonerated in November after 20 years in prison in New York, are two such examples, becoming advocates, taking actions that are within their respective ability, and carrying the voice of the innocent to higher levels.

I intend to be one of this latter category, as I was during my brief 4 ½ months of freedom before I was reincarcerated. We are fighting against injustice, seeking to prevent future casualties, and supporting efforts to free the wrongfully convicted, whether directly or indirectly. In this mission, the collective attitude is to leave no one behind. The cause is very personal: the bond we share is like family.


“The Pain Within”

Free the Innocent,

Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson