In this series, the Summer 2016 interns reflect upon their experience working with CIC.
It was my sophomore year at Brandeis University when I took a class called
‘Investigating Justice.’ I heard the terms ‘wrongful conviction’ and ‘false confession’ for
the first time during this course. I never knew that some percentage of the individuals in
jail were innocent and wrongly accused of crimes due to eyewitness misidentifications,
false confessions, bad science, police misconduct, and several other causes. I was
shocked to learn about these injustices because I was raised to trust the system. After all,
if you cannot trust the police and the courts, whom can you trust? I heard of the Chicago
Innocence Center, where the wrongful conviction capital of America is located, and
inquired about their internship program.
At the Chicago Innocence Center, I met interns and professionals with a passion
for social justice. We came from different neighborhoods, different ethnic backgrounds,
difference socioeconomic privileges, but we shared a common interest in fairness and
advocacy. I met the wrongly convicted, the exonerees, and listened to their painful
narratives and their resilience in the face of injustice. I observed a hearing at the Cook
Country Criminal Court, and I witnessed an innocent man’s conviction be vacated. I learned
how to read and comprehend court documents and trial transcripts. In our weekly
seminars, Pamela Cytrynbaum and David Protess gave the work context and meaning.
My own interest in questionable police practices, including coercive interrogation and
other abuses, was further developed with real world cases. I learned to question my
assumption that the police and the courts are above question and criticism. Lives are
damaged because America’s criminal justice system is painfully flawed.
Living in an affluent suburb of Chicago, I never feared the police or felt threatened by them. I see them as heroic and know I can always count on them to serve and protect my community. What a shock it was to learn of the mistrust of authority in low-income, minority communities… and the mistrust has been well founded. There have been too many cases of coerced confessions, wrongful convictions, and unjustly ruined lives. As Bryan Stevenson claims, “equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” I have been interested in the law and in questions of social justice for a number of years. My internship at the Chicago Innocence Center has shaped a new passion for helping those whom the system has failed. When I become an attorney or journalist, if I help one individual who was wrongly convicted, my career will be meaningful and sufficient. As the Talmud teaches, “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Elizabeth Barras is a rising junior at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. She is majoring in Politics and minoring in Legal Studies and Business. To learn more about the CIC interns, click here.