You mentioned your work with the Innocence Project. Say a little more about what that experience has taught you about the American criminal justice system.
It was not something I ever thought I’d get involved in. I practiced criminal law for 10 years, and we had a really good system in my little rural neck of the woods in Mississippi. I knew the cops, I knew the prosecutors, I knew the judges, and it was a very efficient system. Everybody played fair. I had a lot of clients who went to prison. They deserved it. I never had a client who I thought was wrongfully convicted. It just never occurred to me that these things were happening until — do you know Jim Dwyer?
Jim was a giant.
He wrote this obituary in December of 2004. I love the New York Times obituaries. And it was a weekday obituary. The lead story was a guy my age, my race, my background, my religion, my neck of the woods — he was from Oklahoma, I’m from Arkansas — small town, rural. And he was a second-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s in 1973, a year I thought I might get drafted. My name was never called. This guy got drafted high but, anyway, didn’t make it. And he went back to his hometown in Oklahoma and was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row by the same town that always idolized him as a sports hero. He served 11 years, came within five days of being executed.
So I’m reading his obituary. He had just died after being exonerated by DNA. The story just slapped me in the face. Before long, I was in Oklahoma, in a small town. This is my only nonfiction book. It was published in 2006, and it really took me into the world of wrongful convictions, something I’ve never really thought about. Once I got into researching “The Innocent Man,” I just realized how many innocent people are actually in prison, and there are thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. Barry Scheck asked me to join the board of the Innocence Project, and I did. We litigate coast to coast getting our innocent clients out of prison through DNA testing. And we have 375 DNA exonerations, and some of those were on death row.
The work is addictive because you get caught up with these clients. You’ve come to know that they’re innocent and yet they’ve spent 20 or 30 years in prison for somebody else’s crime, and so the injustice is really something that still nags at me. It’s a never-ending battle that I hope I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
It’s great to see someone, after achieving your level of success, leverage it to do important, valuable work like that.
I’ll tell you something, Adam. Every wrongful conviction case should be a book, because these are fantastic stories from a storytelling point of view because of the incredible suffering, the injustice, the wasted lives, the wasted time, the wasted money, the wasted everything that goes into a single wrongful conviction, while the real rapist, the real murderer goes free.