One of the things we enjoy most at Proving Innocence (PI) is the opportunity to help people in a time of real need. When wrongfully convicted persons are released, they have absolutely nothing. So, PI gives them $1,000 through the Walking Free Fund to help them begin their new lives. ($750 to those also eligible for another fund beyond the scope of this article.) Of course, we always wish we could do more but we feel good about targeting this point in the life of a wrongfully convicted person: when they are first released from prison. Some day we may be able to do more.
Aside from those who are released by Conviction Integrity Units, which are arms of the prosecutors' offices, very few are exonerated at the time of their release. Most are released knowing that the prosecutor still must decide whether or not to retry them. It could be up to a year before that decision is made. The threat is very real, although, personally, I don't know of any cases where a retrial has occurred. After a person has spent 20 years in prison and has just been released based on new evidence, the likelihood of them being retried seems very slim. It seems that prosecutors hang on to the possibility to retry because they have to appear to be doing their due diligence. After all, no prosecutor wants to be accused of being soft on crime. Right?
As more and more people were released, PI saw this tremendous need and implemented the Walking Free Fund in August of 2018. Originally, it was for exonerees (all charges dropped and no retrial), but later, for reasons mentioned above, the person only had to have an innocence group believe in their actual innocence in order to be eligible. The first recipient was Darrell Siggers, and since then we have given money to 54 individuals!
More To Come One thing we have not encountered before is the current pace of individuals being released. Below, you can see how this is growing.
And we are only three months into the year! To be precise, four of the 10 individuals we helped in 2023 were exonerated in Sept of 2022 but we did not hear about them until after Christmas and met with them in early January. Still, only one-fourth of the year gone, we are on track for possibly the largest number of exonerees, yet. This is in part due to the fact that now the four largest counties as well as the State of Michigan have their own Conviction Integrity Units. There are going to be more exonerees every year. Count on it.
Not free quite yet. Recently, we had the experience of helping two persons in a situation we had not previously encountered. Donyelle Woods and Keith Robinson had their sentences commuted by Governor Whitmer. These men are long-time clients of the Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC) which firmly believes in their actual innocence. What really threw me when I met with them was finding out that both of them are still on parole for 4 more years! I was dumbfounded. I naively thought that now they are actually free. Silly me.
For those who think that a wrongfully convicted person, or any person for that matter, being on parole is a walk in the park; it isn't. No one on parole feels really free. Yes, if one walks the straight-and-narrow, there shouldn't be any problem. What is required of them? Quoting from the state website, parolees must "report regularly to the parole agent, prohibit travel out of state without the agent's permission, require them to maintain employment, to obey the law, to submit to drug and alcohol testing at the agent's request, and to reside at an approved residence. They must also avoid any unauthorized association with known criminals and cannot possess firearms." It is not easy to find a job when you've been in prison for 20 years. Also, you may be able to control yourself but you can't control others. If you are approached by someone you knew in prison, the only thing you can do is say, "Sorry, but I can't talk with you," walk the other way, and hope the person doesn't follow. There are countless ways you can unknowingly get in trouble, including simple misunderstandings with the parole officer. In one case, the person found out he must report to his parole officer every time he sees his aunt. Why? Because she is a deputy sheriff and he must report every time he has any interaction with a police officer. Who would have thought? But if he hadn't asked his parole officer that question, he could have unknowingly been in violation of his parole. Hopefully, their parole officer is reasonable and has the parolee's best interest in mind. But anyone in the system can become jaded, and parole officers are not used to dealing with people who are actually innocent, most with no prior record. Donyelle and Keith will not feel free until they are no longer on parole. I was truly disheartened for them after hearing they really have four more years to go.
One person has chosen not to go to a monthly meeting of other exonerees which is meant to provide a support structure. He cannot be sure that there will be no convicted felons there (maybe someone released but technically not yet exonerated). Again, the threat of being sent back to prison to serve a life term in prison is always hanging over their head.
The Need Proving Innocence relies on the donations of people like you. We have not secured any grants as of yet but we are beginning to approach law firms, asking them for support. We have secured the support of Wolf Mueller Law and the firm of Goodman, Hurwitz, and James. We need other law firms and individuals to give regularly if we are going to be able to sustain the Walking Free Fund for newly released persons.
Those who want their donation to be given to the Walking Free Fund (WFF) can state this when you donate online in the note. We guaranteed that 100% of your donation will go directly to exonerees and no portion of it will be used for PI overhead. Click on the donate button now.
Getting involved through donating money and volunteering can be a great source of personal fulfillment. People, actually innocent and beginning a new journey, will find life outside to be very formidable. We want to help them to succeed. Won't you join us?