Imagine spending decades in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now imagine getting out of prison and receiving nothing for all of this time.
This semester I have interned with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which is housed at Temple’s Center City Campus. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a nonprofit law firm that helps exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, these people are called exonerees.
Throughout my time as an intern, I have been able to learn more about how our justice system falls short at times by incarcerating innocent people.
In 1998, two North Philadelphia natives, Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, were convicted of the 1995 murder of Thomas Keal. Despite only a faulty witness identification linking both men to the crime, they were both sentenced to life in prison on murder, robbery, conspiracy and other gun-related charges. Both men spent 15 years in prison until a 2011 confession by the killer led to their subsequent release in 2013 and exoneration a year later, after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project took their case.
Gilyard and Felder are prime examples of how our justice system fails many. The National Registry of Exonerations puts the total number of exonerees in the United States at about 2,191 for a total of 19,190 years spent in prison. Prosecutors’ personal vendettas, bad lawyering, racial discrimination and many other inefficiencies in our system help to contribute to these miscarriages of justice. To be wrongfully labeled as a criminal and have your reputation, family life, freedom and every other aspect of your entire existence affected is an injustice that is unfathomable.
From my experiences at the project and from further research on the issue of wrongful convictions, I have come to believe that we, as a society, owe these people more.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of the many states that offers no compensation for exonerees upon re-entry. So, you can spend decades in prison for a crime you never committed, then be found innocent and released with no money compensating you for all the years you spent wrongfully in prison.
In order for you to receive any sort of compensation, you would have to take the state to court or come to terms on a settlement. This process can be dragged out and take months, or in some cases years with all of the legal motions and paperwork that can stretch out the process.
The likelihood of exonerees getting any compensation from the state for education or other benefits is slim to none.
This is where I think universities can step in, especially Temple. We have to be mindful that criminal justice issues have an enormous impact on the North Philadelphia community that we’ve decided to build and grow with. This heightens our level of social responsibility on such topics.
I think Temple should look for ways to offer grants, scholarships or other forms of financial assistance to exonerees.
Temple has already shown itself to be progressive on criminal justice issues. For one, Temple provides space for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to operate and exonerate a number of innocent people who are incarcerated alongside university students. Temple is also the birthplace of the Inside-Out program, which works to educate those who are currently incarcerated. And Temple’s Pan-African Studies Community Education Program also provides re-entry resources for formerly incarcerated individuals.
It would be in line with the university’s progressive stance on criminal justice issues to provide more resources, specifically for exonerees who have come into contact with the criminal justice system through no fault of their own and who now need to deal with the aftermath.
This would be especially helpful to exonerees who never got to attend or finish college, as some become suspects or are convicted of crimes before they are even 18. Many also obtain credits in prison toward a GED or bachelor’s degree that may allow universities to evaluate their credits and could potentially make it easier to offer assistance.
If Temple offered financial assistance and expanded educational opportunities for exonerees, this would be a huge step in helping to right the wrongs of our justice system.
If exonerees were given the chance to obtain an education, this would allow them to rebuild their lives, pursue their passions and provide for themselves and their families. Simply assisting them in leading a normal life after being the victims of such inequity would go a long way for this unique group of people.
While this is not an issue that is solely Temple’s responsibility, the university should welcome the opportunity to continue to lead on criminal justice efforts.
Lyndon Ewing is a junior economics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jenny Roberts, supervising editor, also interns at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.