Gifts of a lifetime can be used to free the wrongly convicted

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday March 15, 2020

Mary Sue and I love movies and are regular moviegoers.  As we prepared to return to Annapolis from our annual trek to Southwest Florida, the calendar showed Friday – and, no matter what, Friday night is movie night. 

So, instead of cleaning and packing, we headed out to see Just Mercy – described by reviewer Gregg Brilliant as “a powerful and thought-provoking true-story” of the wrongful conviction of 34-year-old Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx). 

In 1988, McMillian, an African American, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old white girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence. 

That’s when a young, Harvard-educated, African American attorney, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) – and the author of the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption on which the eponymous film is based – enters the scene to lead a history-making battle for justice in the face of racism and dubious legal and political maneuvers.  

Though Stevenson’s crusade to free McMillian was eventually successful, the wrongly condemned McMillian spent six years on Alabama’s death row because of perjured testimony and the prosecutor’s failure to provide McMillian’s lawyers with exculpatory evidence.

The film was an eye-opener because, over the years, I’ve not paid much attention to prison reform, wrongful convictions and other criminal justice issues.  Shame on me for that. 

But no one can watch “Just Mercy”, including the coda, where the movie makers roll a “where-they-are-now” segment showing the real people whose lives are depicted in the film, without being touched by the gut-wrenching injustice suffered by one man – and dismayed by a system that let it happen, including government misconduct and reliance on unreliable eyewitnesses.

However, drama that night was not limited to the big screen.  It also unfolded in the seats next to us.  About 30 minutes into the film, I heard soft sounds of weeping. Then I noticed the lady sitting to my right was taking tissues from her purse and passing them over to her husband.

As the lights came up and we prepared to leave, we ended up in a conversation with that same couple. That’s when we discovered that our seatmates were Larry and Jo Ann Golden, delightful snowbirds from Utica, NY – and easy to talk to. 

I learned that Larry was born in 1942 in Herkimer, New York, graduated from Cornell University in 1965 and received his JD degree from Buffalo Law School in 1969.  He practiced civil law, with some civil rights and criminal law litigation, in the Utica, NY/Oneida County area for 49 years where he was active in the Rotary Club and other civic organizations prior to his retirement in 2017.

Jo Ann is an accountant and past president of the nearly 32,000-member NY Society of CPA’s.  She retired in 2012 after an engaging professional life where she, too, was active in civic affairs, especially child advocacy issues such as juvenile delinquency and homelessness.  Though “retired”, she continues as board chair of the NY Council of Non-Profits and the Ethics Committee of the state CPA society.  Both are active in their Florida neighborhood association.

Early during our approving discussion of the film, I said, “Larry, if I may ask, what was the weeping about?”

It was then I learned that both Larry and Jo Ann are veterans in criminal justice reform, that the weeping we heard was born of years – more than a decade – of Larry’s volunteer work with men and women who, like Walter McMillian, have experienced wrongful convictions.

Their story began in 2008, during Larry’s term as president of the Oneida County Bar Association.  It happened as a by-product of his decision to use his time as president to refocus the group on public awareness programs about current legal issues.

Seeking a Law Day speaker, he connected with the Innocence Project in New York City.  The IP is a national litigation and public policy organization founded in 1992 to advance the exoneration of wrongfully convicted people by using DNA testing.

Golden landed the IP executive director, Maddy deLone, as the speaker and together they enlisted the participation of wrongly convicted Roy Brown, a recently released exoneree who had spent 15 years in a NY state prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence. 

The Law Day program included a panel discussion of wrongful convictions open to the public and attended by students from schools around the county. 

The event was such a success that the director of the local performing arts institute invited Golden and the Bar Association to stage a joint program centered around the emotionally charged and content-rich Law Day stories about the struggle of wrongfully convicted men and women freed by DNA evidence – and their transition back into society. 

“What emerged,” according to Golden, “was a five-day event in November 2008 called ‘The Art of Innocence’, which included panel discussions, showings of the film After Innocence (2005), and a live production of the award-winning Off-Broadway play, The Exonerated (2000), by a New York City drama school cast. More than 1,000 attended the event.” 

Participants learned that over the past 30 years, more than 2,500 wrongfully convicted have been exonerated in the US.  Since 1992, the IP, using DNA testing, has exonerated 367 people from 37 states after they served an average of 14 years behind bars, including 21 who served time on death row.

As a result of this and subsequent experiences, Larry Golden and his wife were hooked.  They continue as active supporters of the IP, and its work has a major claim on their time and talent.  While others enjoy pickleball and the sun and surf, Larry continues to give public awareness talks to high school and college classes and civic organizations; attends national Innocence Network conferences; and currently assists in the development of an exoneree housing project Tampa, Florida.

When I asked Golden what motivates his continued work to free the wrongly convicted, he quoted Martin Luther King’s admonition that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Golden’s comment reminded me of my favorite French philosopher, Montesquieu, who said, “There is no crueler tyranny than that perpetuated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice” – a major reason our Founders embedded his doctrine of the “separation of powers” in our own Constitution.

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  1. Bill Fay on March 17, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Phil, A very poignant story and of which everyone should be aware

  2. William Whitehead on March 17, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    Grateful for you Phil and a moving story.

  3. Kent Knutson on March 18, 2020 at 4:07 am

    Phil, great story . . . I remember the 1979 film, “And Justice for All” . . . with Al Pacino . . . that was a classic. I think about it whenever there’s injustice of any kind. I remember the guy who was thrown in jail for a small crime . . . and because his attorney (Pacino) couldn’t get to the court room in time, was convicted. Then shortly after the decision, committed suicide . . . that’s something that really bothered me. The legal system can be challenging and unfair. Great story and thanks for sharing.