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Department of Corrections: 74 Mistakes

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A small photo hanging in Larry Marshall's law-school office depicts a longhaired Rolando Cruz and a taller, rangier Rubin "Hurricane" Carter getting ready to rumble, while Marshall stands between them, his arms outstretched. All three are smiling. "That was taken on death row," Marshall says. The three men have been instrumental in pulling together this weekend's National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, being held at Northwestern University's School of Law: Cruz was the instigator, Marshall the main organizer, and Carter the inspiration.

When Carter was released from prison in 1988 he moved to a commune in Canada. He didn't stay long, though it was an amicable parting. "Rubin had sort of been in a commune for 20 years," Marshall says. Members of the commune had been in the ex-boxer's corner when no one else was, and they'd forced the issue of Carter's wrongful conviction in the courts. "Carter started a group with them called the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted," says Marshall, "and sometime around 1992 they had their first conference up there. They had a bunch of wrongly convicted people from Canada, they had one of the Birmingham Six there from England, they had a couple of folks from the States there. These folks shared their stories, they had experts, they had sessions. I left that conference just feeling so energized and alive and so changed that I felt this is something we ought to do in the States."

After Cruz was released from prison in 1995, he would visit Marshall to talk about bringing together all the innocent death-row inmates who'd been freed. "When you talk to a Cruz, or a Dennis Williams, or a Gary Gauger," says Marshall, who has represented all three, "they all want this opportunity to not have their suffering be in vain."

Last year there was a hearing on the death-penalty moratorium at the Thompson Center. "At that time five of them were there at one table--Gauger, Williams, Cruz, [Perry] Cobb, and [Darby] Tillis," says Marshall. "That in itself just blew people away. So I thought, 'What if we had everybody?'"

Since 1973, one woman and 73 men have been released from death row. Marshall has been involved in seven of those cases. When he began putting together a conference last November, he called several people who'd been closely involved with wrongful convictions, including David Protess, the journalism professor whose class project turned up the evidence that proved the innocence of the Ford Heights Four; lawyer Rob Warden, who cowrote two books on wrongful convictions; and Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center, a cosponsor of the conference.

Some suggested that the conference would be a great photo opportunity. "Fine, it's a photo op," says Marshall. "But it's an important photo op. It's important for the public to understand the enormity of this issue, to understand the enormity of the fact that 70 people have been told that their guilt was so well established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they were deserving to die and they were going to be killed. Yet in those 70 cases--at least those 70--we know that was a grave error, that those people were absolutely innocent."

The conference will include workshops and panels featuring the famous and the obscure; experts in forensics and investigations; journalists, legislators, and plenty of lawyers. Alan Dershowitz isn't on the list of speakers, but Barry Scheck is. Experts on the religious, legal, and moral ramifications of the death penalty will also speak. But the former inmates will talk mostly with one another.

Of the 74 former death-row inmates, at least 35 will be at the conference. "Four or five are still up in the air," says Marshall, "there are still six or seven we couldn't find, and a handful who haven't been seen by or contacted their families in ten years. As far as I can tell, the most of those folks who've ever gathered was five at one time."

For the freed inmates, the conference will be not just the first chance for them to be seen together, but the first chance they've had to be together. Private sessions attended only by facilitators and the former inmates will take place in the midst of a very public event. These sessions are unprecedented, says Marshall. "It's a classic thing with people who've been on death row especially--and anybody who's been in prison wrongly--to say to others around them, 'You don't understand what I've been through.'"

Part of the reason the inmates feel that way, says Marshall, is that "in many ways the wrongly convicted are treated a whole lot worse than the rightly convicted. The rightly convicted end up going through gradual-release programs. They go from maximum to medium to minimum in some cases, they get work release perhaps for the last year or so of their sentence. They get supervision from the probation department, with help in finding jobs and skills and education. They get, at the very least, a small amount of money when they get out to buy some clothes. Not so with people who've been wrongly convicted. A judge declares them innocent, the prosecutor drops the charges--and there they are the next morning, out on the curb with nothing. The rightly convicted did something to deserve being punished. These folks are completely victims--and yet they're just left out there in the cold. Predictably, some of them have great difficulties." He adds that there are groups outside the system that try to help out, but they're limited in what they can do.

The state with the largest number of innocent people released from death row--at least the largest number conference organizers know about--is Florida, with 18. Second on the list is Illinois, with 9. However, Illinois is moving up fast, with more independent investigators and more institution-backed lawyers who can take these cases pro bono (such as Marshall) than most other states. No one knows how many innocent people in Illinois or any other death-penalty state have been buried.

Marshall knows that the conference probably won't spur the abolition of the death penalty, but he hopes the sight of so many of its near victims will give death-penalty advocates pause and will slow the rising tide of executions. He also plans to make the conference an annual event. "It doesn't happen often in life, but sometimes you're working on something, and then you're talking to people, and the reaction's just uniformly, 'Wow, this is something that has to be done. This is the right time, this is the right place.' Hopefully this is the beginning of something and not the end." --J.F.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Larry Marshall photo by Robert Drea.

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