CCPS Symposium Focuses on Wrongful Convictions

CCPS Symposium Focuses on Wrongful Convictions
October 26, 2023

Wrongful convictions throughout the United States are one of the most pressing issues facing the criminal justice system. They have a devastating effect not only on individuals whose lives are shattered, but on their families, who face a kind of incarceration as they navigate life without their loved ones.

That was the message of “Spotlight on Families: The Resilience, Unbreakable Bonds, and Ripple Effects of Wrongful Convictions,” a special event cosponsored by St. John’s University and the Deskovic Foundation.

The panel discussion, held on October 2 in The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, featured notable speakers on the issue as it celebrated International Wrongful Conviction Day. This day is a global observance that serves as a reminder that despite advances in the legal system, miscarriages of justice persist and innocent lives continue to be impacted.

To date, there have been more than 3,300 exonerations, according to a national registry of exonerees. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” noted Marina Sorochinski, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice, Legal Studies, and Homeland Security, and panel moderator for the event. She added that it is estimated that three to five percent of all convictions in the US are wrongful.

André McKenzie, Ed.D., Vice Provost, told the audience that wherever possible, St. John’s University devotes its physical and intellectual resources to root out the causes of poverty and social injustice, and encourage solutions that are “adaptable, effective, and concrete.” He highlighted the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program®, which, since 2016, has brought St. John’s students into correctional facilities to take classes with incarcerated students, and was hopeful that a postprison scholarship program would be offered by the University in 2024.

“The mission of St. John’s implores us to educate future criminal justice and legal professionals through a pedagogy based and rooted in social justice, and to prepare those future professionals to provide a voice for those whose voices go unheard,” Dr. McKenzie stressed. “We are proud to host such an important event.”

Jeffrey Deskovic, an attorney and exoneree himself, has collaborated with Dr. Sorochinski on several events and panel discussions dealing with wrongful convictions. “New York has the dubious distinction of being third in the country in terms of wrongful conviction, so we have a lot of work to do,” emphasized Mr. Deskovic.

In 1990, Mr. Deskovic was arrested at age 16 for a murder and rape he did not commit. He spent 16 years in prison before he was exonerated through DNA evidence. Using some of the funds he received as compensation, he became an advocate for the wrongfully incarcerated. He eventually became an attorney and represented several exonerees and pursued policy changes.

Sharonne Salaam, a prominent advocate and activist and the mother of Yusef Salaam from the Exonerated Five, a group of young men wrongfully convicted of rape and assault in the infamous case of the Central Park Jogger, discussed how families are torn apart by wrongful convictions and the difficulties exonerees have with reintegrating into society.

A founding member of Justice 4 The Wrongfully Incarcerated, Ms. Salaam stressed that family members of these individuals face crushing hopelessness and despair in not being able to save their loved ones from an undeserved fate. “It’s almost like we put additional powers within these systems to solve problems that exist within our communities that we are supposed to be solving.”

“Not only can these individuals say or do almost anything—they cannot be held accountable for the things they say and do. Many times they cannot even be fired. They are a step above the law. They have a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and we have authorized that.”

She added, “My son was 15 years old when he was picked up by police,” she recalled, noting that a false confession was coerced out of him and his associates. As the mother of someone who was caught up in this whirlwind, Ms. Salaam stressed there must be checks and balances within the system itself that protect the innocent people as well as those who are guilty.

Ms. Salaam recalled that there were limited opportunities when her son and his fellow defendants were released and then exonerated. It took almost 10 years for them to receive financial compensation.

“So, during that time, they have to live somewhere,” she said. “They have to eat something. Are they expected to eat out of garbage cans? They need clothes. Life goes on. But where do you put these people?”

Sammie Werkheiser, a legislative activist with a primary focus on incarcerated pregnant women’s rights, was twice convicted of child sexual abuse—and both convictions were overturned. When she was released she created a grassroots organization called Mothers on the Inside that assists and advocates on behalf of incarcerated women.

She told her audience that there is no shame in asking for help. “You might not be wrongfully convicted, or ever see a day in prison, but one day you’re going to ask yourself, ‘What’s the one thing I can do to change the world?’”

“I never thought about the emotional stress the family must feel as they are rejected by society, even when they know the truth about these accusations,” observed Criminal Justice major Bridget Sheahan. “These beautiful stories inspire me to continue my career path with a different mindset. I want to help people who are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.”