Serving a life sentence is like walking through a never-ending nightmare. I would know. As a “three-striker,” I served 15 years of a life sentence for a drug conviction. When California voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012, my sentence was commuted, and I was free to begin a new life as a prison-reform advocate. I’m one of the lucky ones.
But imagine being forced to endure lifelong imprisonment when you’re totally innocent.
The California Innocence Project has illuminated 12 such cases of unjust incarceration, cases the courts have, so far, failed to correct. To call attention to these cases, the California Western School of Law in San Diego—home base for the CIP—organized a 700-mile walk across the state. Arriving in Sacramento on June 2013, a large crowd of marchers hand-delivered clemency petitions to Gov. Jerry Brown’s legal team.
Six months later, on December 20, 2013, marchers returned to follow up on the status of the petitions. Being among the 50-plus demonstrators who walked from Raley Field to the Capitol that Friday was an unlikely way to spend a nice fall day. But those who are wrongfully convicted can’t be forgotten. Justice must prevail.
The CIP has already secured the release of 11 exonerees. Six of them attended last month’s rally and were juxtaposed by the family members of the 12 yet to be exonerated. All who spoke painted an unfortunate portrait of injustice—tainted prosecutions, decades of confinement and too many missed holidays to count.
One such victim was Uriah Courtney, who was released on June 24, 2013, after serving eight years of a life sentence for rape and kidnapping. New DNA technology in 2004 cleared Courtney and enabled the CIP to find the actual culprit.
The CIP stakes its reputation on finding the truth, not technicalities. In reviewing 2,000 cases a year, the CIP looks for proof of innocence, often through technology. According to the CIP, when DNA plays a primary role in an exoneration, it is usually accompanied by eyewitness misidentification.
The work of the CIP continues as the state endures an era of penal reformation. As the criminal-justice system undergoes a paradigm shift, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the families of a dozen wrongfully imprisoned individuals could receive a belated holiday gift: justice at last.
Eugene Alexander Dey was a three-striker serving a life sentence when Proposition 36 passed in 2012. He now advocates for evidence-based solutions to treatable criminogenic maladies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.