While watching the trial of the landmark United States Supreme Court case that upheld the Affordable Care Act in June 2012, Michael Zabel got an idea.
News that Miller v. Alabama had been decided popped up on the feed. The court decided that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for minors.
“I read it for a second and that’s exactly what our client had,” Zabel said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I think this applies to Tyrone.’”
Zabel, a 2010 Beasley School of Law alumnus, along with Hayes Hunt, a 1997 alumnus, were representing Tyrone Jones on an innocence claim through the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. At the time, Zabel and Hunt were both working at Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia-based law firm that Zabel said often partners with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
Nilam Sanghvi, a senior staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project at the Beasley School of Law, said the organization was founded in 2009 to “identify, investigate and litigate potential wrongful convictions.” The have since heard from more than 5,000 people. Jones, one of the nonprofit’s first clients, is one of four people to earn freedom through the program.
Sanghvi said when Jones was 16, he was convicted of murder after two false confessions. Although neither his parents nor a lawyer were present, his confessions were used as the sole evidence against him. He was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1975.
Now, more than 40 years later, Jones is free through the work of the project.
Zabel and Hunt began an “emergency petition to vacate his sentence” immediately after the Miller v. Alabama decision. They had it filed in less than a week, he said, and it was one of the first cases to be filed in Pennsylvania under the new ruling.
They had been working on a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act, which allows courts to consider new evidence for potential exoneration, with little success. He called Miller v. Alabama a “happy accident.”
“If we could choose which way to have Tyrone released, I’m sure all of us would choose exoneration, including Tyrone,” he said. “However, this way happened first.”
Although Miller v. Alabama was decided in 2012, it took Jones another four years to be released this past August.
“I can only imagine how interminable that felt to him,” Zabel said.
Zabel said Jones had “never been an adult anywhere,” so they also had to create a life plan in order for Jones’ case to be taken seriously.
The PA Innocence Project set Jones up with a room in his sister’s house in North Carolina and an electrical engineering job. After four years of appeals, Jones was finally released.
“In this case, [the courts] were satisfied with Tyrone and who he was as a man,” Zabel said. “At the end of the day, he’s earned the right to live his own life and live out the rest of his life in freedom.”
Jones is now free, but he’s still on parole, Sanghvi said. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is still working to get him completely exonerated. Sanghvi said they are “probably looking at a pardon petition at this point,” but they are still exploring other options.
“He’s been home for less than a month,” Sanghvi said. “So he’s checking in with his parole officer and spending time with his family. He was in jail for 40 years, so he’s learning a lot of things. How to use a phone, how to use a computer, what the Internet is, all those sorts of things.”
Today, the Innocence Project will participate in Wrongful Conviction Day by starting a discussion about “what innocence means” by making “Wall of Innocence” signs at law schools around Pennsylvania and encouraging students to tweet to their government officials. Sanghvi said their focus this year is on the “lack of any compensation or reentry services for innocent people who have been exonerated.”
“It’s very troubling that there are innocent people that are convicted. The system’s never going to be perfect, but if we can help people who are in that situation and can shed light on those problems within the system. … That’s very important to our society,” she said.
Zabel said he began working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project while he was at Temple.
During his second year of law school, Provost JoAnne Epps, then-dean of the law school, told his class that as an attorney, “you have an obligation to help others, regardless of what field you go into. It’s part of the profession.” He said the message resonated with him.
“You’re a person for others,” he said. “You’re not just put on this earth for yourself, it’s also to help others. I always felt that at Temple. [It’s] not just to earn yourself a nice car.”
“I enjoy a lot of things about my practice [of law], but I know that something like this, to know that I was a part of a team that helped change someone’s life for the better, that’s something that will stay with you long after bonuses for yearly performance or something like that,” he added. “This is something someday I’ll tell my son about and be proud of.”
Erin Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.