Associated Press Saturday November 14 6:34 PM ET

Wrongly Convicted Offer Some Tips

AP Photo
By ARLENE LEVINSON AP National Writer 

CHICAGO (AP) - When Sonia Jacobs met Troy Lee Jones this weekend, his first question was heart-warmingly familiar to her: ``How long have you been out?'' His second: ``Do you feel angry?''

Ms. Jacobs was freed from a Florida prison six years ago after being locked up for 16 years, five of those on death row. Anger is natural, she told Jones, who spent more than 14 years on California's death row.

On Wednesday, Jones marks two years since the magical night he turned his back on San Quentin. He's still struggling to adjust to a world where he feels like a dinosaur. ``Where I've been and not to be able to hate is a miracle to me,'' he said.

They were among more than 30 survivors of death row gathered Saturday for the first National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at Northwestern University law school.

In the emotional climax of the event Saturday afternoon, a ceremony was held to honor those wrongly convicted. One by one, 29 of the wrongfully convicted who attended the conference stepped out on stage, recited their names and gave the dates of their incarceration. Each concluded that if the state that convicted them had ``gotten its way, I would be dead today.''

After placing a sunflower in a vase to symbolize the life they regained, each took a seat on stage amid warm, thunderous applause from an audience of about 750.

These people who once spent their days waiting to be executed were brought together with some 1,200 lawyers and anti-death penalty activists, among them Rubin ``Hurricane'' Carter.

Carter, now 62, was a prizefighter aiming at the middleweight world championship when he was convicted in 1966 of a triple murder in New Jersey and sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1985 and now heads the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, based in Toronto.

All wrongful convictions are death penalties, Carter said in an interview.

``There is no separation, between being on death row or being held unjustly for the rest of your life,'' he said. ``Prison is death.''

Conference organizers identified 73 men and two women released from death row, their cases reversed, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed rewritten death penalty laws to go back into effect beginning in 1976. The death penalty is now on the books in 38 states, plus the federal government and the military, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says 3,517 people were on death rows as of Oct. 1.

People freed from death row ``speak to the emotional, human side as opposed to the intellectual side'' of the death penalty debate, said Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern law professor who organized the conference and has helped win three reversals.

A DNA test exonerated Kirk Bloodsworth nearly 10 years after he was condemned to die in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.

``People say, 'Oh, that means the system works,''' said Bloodsworth, a burly, 38-year-old crabber from Cambridge, Md. ``No it didn't. It backfired. ... For 8 years, 11 months and 19 days I was in a place I didn't belong, and for two years they were going to kill me.''

And reversals don't impress Randall Padgett, who little more than a year ago won acquittal at his retrial after 51/2 years facing Alabama's electric chair for the death of his estranged wife.

``If there's 75 people on death row who have gotten exonerated, I've got to believe there's a lot more that haven't gotten that chance,'' Padgett said.

At age 48, he lives with his mother and works as a chicken farmer in Arab, Ala., after having to sell his house to pay legal bills.

Some, like Jones, came to the conference seeking reassurance that their confused feelings were normal. He was sentenced to die in 1982 in the killing of a girlfriend in Bakersfield, Calif.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that his lawyer was inept and reversed his conviction. Charges were then dropped.

He feels stuck in the 1970s. ``When I got out, I didn't know how to work an ATM machine,'' said Jones, eyes wide behind gold-rimmed glasses. ``Right today, I haven't touched a computer. CDs! When I left, they were still playing eight-track tapes.''

In Ms. Jacobs case, to avoid a new trial in the killing of two police officers, she allowed a technical guilty plea of second-degree murder to be entered without forfeiting her claim of innocence.

``I was tired,'' says the 51-year-old Los Angeles Yoga instructor. ``I wanted to go home.''

Copyright © 1998 The Associated Press. 

Back to Conference Highlights
Back to Truth in Justice