Innocence Project of Florida’s annual Steppin’ Out Spring Gala on May 12 was a huge success this year. The major fundraising event for the project generated over $70,000 in funds that will go towards litigation efforts in IPF’s fight to free the wrongfully convicted in Florida prisons.
Serving as a Criminal Justice Communications Intern at IPF since the beginning of January 2016, I was looking forward to the event in the months leading up to it for several reasons. I used to complain about having to write papers for classes, but in my position as an intern, I research topics related to wrongful conviction and write blog posts and articles about them throughout the day. I came to love something I once groaned about because through writing countless pieces about the issue of wrongful conviction in this country, not only have I greatly improved my writing skills, but I have also learned so much about the topic and have a newfound admiration for the innocence movement. I have learned about hundreds of exonerees and read their tragic stories of how the criminal justice system literally took their lives away from them, and in turn have written a number of articles about a handful of them. I knew that I would finally be able to meet a few of the courageous men I had written about at Steppin’ Out, which is one of the main reasons I was quick to volunteer for and attend the event.
I think I speak for the majority of the innocence movement when I say that we look at exonerees as celebrities, on par with the likes of any famous movie or sports star. But unlike most Hollywood A-listers, exonerees did not earn their fame by starring in movies or being really good at a sport; they earned it solely through their courage and determination to prove their innocence—no matter how long it took. After Netflix released Making a Murderer last December, Steven Avery became a household name practically overnight. The nation, and now even the world, was astonished and disgusted with the injustices Avery had experienced. And while his story finally brought the long-time issue of wrongful conviction to widespread public attention, Avery’s story is just one of thousands. Take, for example, James Bain, who was exonerated in 2009 with the help of IPF after spending 35 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Thirty-five years. To put that into perspective, since James went to prison in 1974 and before his release, the text message was invented, terrorists attacked our country on 9/11, and Americans elected the nation’s first African American president. At the time of his release, James had served the most time wrongfully incarcerated of all the DNA exonerees across the country.
James was just one of the few exonerees that attended Steppin’ Out and that I had the pleasure of briefly meeting. Also in attendance was Orlando Boquete, who I was particularly excited to meet because of all the great things I had heard about him through staff members at IPF. Orlando actually managed to escape from his wrongful conviction twice, and although that makes him ineligible for compensation, he was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a U.S. naturalized citizen on March 27, 2015. The moment Orlando walked into the gala event, he lit up the entire room with his positive, outgoing, and warm presence. To have such a great attitude and outlook despite everything he has been through is truly amazing. Other Florida exonerees also in attendance included Seth Penalver, who was exonerated from death row in 2012, and William Dillon and Derrick Williams, who were exonerated through the efforts of IPF.
Some of the wrongfully convicted from other states also attended Steppin’ Out, including Clay Chabot and Richard Rosario. I was especially excited about meeting Richard, who actually had his conviction overturned recently on March 23. A series about Richard’s story was even featured on Dateline NBC. Having written a couple blog posts about him due to his recent release from prison and the series about him, it was surprising to see him at the event, but just as exciting nonetheless. Watching all of the exonerees interact with each other was such a unique experience, and it was truly rewarding to observe first-hand a bond they share that only they can understand.
Another main reason I was excited to attend Steppin’ Out was because Sister Helen Prejean was being honored at the event. I first have to thank Gordon Waldo, whose capital punishment class I took during my Spring 2015 semester at the Florida State University. Within the first couple weeks of class, he showed us the film Dead Man Walking, in which Susan Sarandon stars as Sister Helen, and depicts her first time serving as a spiritual advisor for an inmate on death row. Later on in the semester, Mr. Waldo dedicated an entire section of the course to innocent people awaiting the death penalty and showed us a few different films about the wrongfully convicted and the innocence movement. His capital punishment class is where I learned that someone could go to jail for a crime they did not commit, and also where I learned about innocence projects and the amazing pro-bono work that they do to free the wrongfully convicted. Had it not been for Mr. Waldo’s class, I may not have known about the issue of wrongful conviction and the innocence movement until much later, and perhaps I would have never applied to be an intern at IPF. Therefore, I credit the irreplaceable and incredible experience I have had interning at IPF to Mr. Waldo. He actually attended Steppin’ Out, and I was extremely happy for him that he was able to meet the remarkable woman whose movie he has shown in his capital punishment class for several years.
Often called the “Mother Teresa of Death Row,” Sister Helen is known for her extensive work in advocating against the death penalty, and continues to touch lives with her selfless passion for helping others. She is one of the nicest, most humble, and welcoming human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and to even be in her presence was truly an honor. Upon accepting her Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte Commitment to Justice Award, Sister Helen delivered a speech that left not a single dry eye in the room. Listening to her stories and experiences was inspiring and perhaps even life changing, and it seems almost impossible that one person could be so selfless and caring. One part of her speech in particular resonated with me. After commending the exonerees for their bravery and relentless efforts to prove their innocence and how happy they must be now that they are finally free again, Sister Helen asked, “but what about the people advocating and fighting for them and the people working at innocence projects?” She went on to tell the exonerees and other patrons in attendance to imagine how great the lawyers and other members of innocence organizations must feel, knowing that their efforts to free the wrongfully convicted were worth it because they were victorious. Although I am just an intern and play no direct role in litigating cases or securing exonerations, I think that even one more person who learns more about the criminal justice system, necessary reforms, and especially the problem of wrongful convictions can make a difference. In addition to my internship at IPF, Sister Helen’s speech inspired me to want to remain an active member in the innocence movement and to one day hopefully make a difference—no matter how small—in at least one person’s life.
Overall, to sum up my first experience at the annual IPF Steppin’ Out Spring 2016 Gala, it was humbling, to say the least.
Here are a few photos from the event:
Exonerees Orlando Boquete and Richard Rosario
Sister Helen Prejean
From left to right: IPF Executive Director Seth Miller, exoneree James Bain, exoneree Orlando Boquete, IPF Staff Attorney Melissa Montle, exoneree William Dillon, IPF Assistant Director Toni Shrewsbury, wrongfully convicted Clay Chabot, Sister Helen Prejean, IPF Director of Social Services Anthony Scott, death row exoneree Seth Penalver, wrongfully convicted Richard Rosario, exoneree Derrick Williams, and IPF Staff Investigator Jennie Nepstad