After Innocence: Freedom is just the beginning

Throughout the week, the powerful documentary After Innocence has been showing at the Harris Theater in downtown Pittsburgh. Last night ACLU-PA had the privilege of hosting the two evening screenings and hosting talkbacks afterwards.

The film follows the stories of eight men who were wrongly convicted, and while it explores how these innocent men ended up in prison, it spends more time telling their post-prison story.

When innocent people are released from jail, they re-enter the world with nothing. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend time with Harold Wilson, Pennsylvania’s most recent death row exoneree. Harold was given 65 cents and a SEPTA pass and released out the door of SCI-Graterford. Graterford is 31 miles west of Philadelphia and located on a state highway while Harold’s family lives in South Philadelphia.

Exonerees have trouble finding work and finding housing because usually their record is not expunged. They walk the streets with a criminal record for a crime they did not commit. There is no state law mandating the expungement of their records, and it only happens if the District Attorney’s office cooperates. More often than not, that is not the case.

There are legislators in Harrisburg who are starting to pay attention. Representative Michael McGeehan (D-Philadelphia) and 17 other co-sponsors have introduced House Bill 1473 to provide exonerees with compensation. Part of the compensation package includes “for each day that the claimant was incarcerated, a sum of money equivalent to the highest amount that a member of the General Assembly would have been entitled to collect for that day as a per diem”. Rep. McGeehan has said that he chose this figure to make it personal for his fellow legislators.

Rep. McGeehan talked with Elmer Smith, a columnist from the Philadelphia Daily News, in January:

“It seems like more and more of these cases are coming up, almost on a monthly basis” McGeehan told me yesterday. “I saw your story and I had to call.

“It’s very disturbing that mostly what we do when we find out we convicted someone wrongly is just let them go and say, ‘Oops.’ Oops isn’t good enough.”

You can hear the emotion in McGeehan’s voice as he runs through the entries in the catalog of injustices that he’s been compiling.

“Ray Krone” – a Pennsylvanian – “served more than 20 years on death row in Arizona (sic) before DNA evidence freed him,” McGeehan said.

“The Vincent Moto case in Philadelphia is one where a guy spent 10 years in prison for a rape he didn’t do. This guy’s family spent their life savings to get him out. They’re in their 70s and going back to work again because their life savings are gone.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Now you are free to get on with your life.’ That’s why I’m doing this.”

Similar legislation, Senate Bill 1029, has been introduced in the PA Senate with eight co-sponsors, including the chair, vice chair, and minority chair of the Judiciary Committee.

What can you do? Contact your senator and representative and ask them to support these bills. In addition, contact Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) and Rep. Dennis O’Brien (R-Philadelphia), the chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, and ask them to move this legislation out of committee.

It’s time for justice to be done in Pennsylvania.

Andy in the HBG