In this series, the Summer 2016 interns reflect upon their experience working with CIC.
My first day at Chicago Innocence Center was, in a word, overwhelming. Seminar was a blur of names I had never heard, streets I had never seen, and legal mistakes that were unfathomable to me. As the newest intern everyone seemed miles ahead while I was floundering in the dark. Noticing my distress, one of the other girls hung back, and as we walked kindly offered to help me catch up. Her biggest piece of advice carried me through the summer— you have to be okay with things taking time and feeling like nothing is happening. When a wrongful conviction is suspected, the State’s Attorney does not rush to correct their mistakes. Cases take decades.
True to her advice, my work with CIC revealed a waiting game that I had not expected. Waiting for a witness to be willing to talk, waiting for evidence you discovered ten years ago to finally be brought to a courtroom, waiting for the State’s Attorney to stop appealing. At 26th and California, I learned that, for all the waiting, it takes minutes to undo a wrongful conviction. For two innocent men, 23 years of fighting was over in a five minute hearing. Decades of time lost came down to a few words from the judge and the gasps family members trying to stay quiet despite their excitement. After witnessing how much work CIC and the defendants lawyers put into the case, I couldn’t help but expect there to be more. What more I don’t know, but in five minutes the fight to be released is over and a new one begins.
Working with exonerees, I quickly realized the law does not always align with being just.
For example, apparently there is a difference between being an exoneree and being “innocent”— at least in the eyes of the court. Being an exoneree means your conviction is vacated and you are released from prison. It does, however, not guarantee you will be viewed as innocent in the eyes of the law. It is a concept I did not understand on my first day and three months later, it has not become any clearer. Without a certificate of innocence an exoneree cannot get compensation for their time in prison and, more importantly to some, the state does not acknowledge any wrongdoing or responsibility.
This summer the phrase “institutions are sticky” became something I saw, rather than
read about in political science classes. Even with overwhelming evidence of innocence, it can take more than a decade for a conviction to be vacated. Because the system replicates itself and protects officers, accusations of torture and misconduct can be suppressed for years. Jailhouse snitches can be paid by prosecutors or get plea deals for giving false testimony against innocent men and women. It sometimes feels like rather than owning up to a mistake, at every corner the system tries to keep progress from being made.
Working with CIC, I saw the embodiment of forgiveness and grace. On my second day I
had the honor of hearing Stanley Wrice, CIC’s outreach coordinator, speak about his experiences. Wrice has had more than 30 years of his life stolen by a broken system, who was called a liar and a murderer to his face by a judge. Listening to him speak, I quickly realized he is a man who has all the reason in the world to be angry, and yet when he was released he stood up and shook the hands of those who prosecuted and persecuted him. He has every right to be angry, but instead he works with CIC reading letters and putting his energy into helping men like him. It is a level of forgiveness and grace I want to emulate. My summer with the Chicago Innocence Center challenged me, angered me, but most importantly, gave me the tools to channel my feelings into meaningful steps toward change.
Tamara Matheson is a rising junior at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, PA. She is studying Political Science with a minor in Black Studies. To learn more about the CIC interns, click here.