Opinion: What Is Liberty Worth?

By Andrea Jones

I attended my first exoneration hearing today. I will be honest. I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Angel Gonzalez, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 20 years for a kidnapping and rape he did not commit, would enter the courtroom to revelry. I imagined the stereotypical, fictional judge banging the gavel and being critical of the State’s investigation while commenting on the number of wrongfully convicted in this country and giving a heartfelt apology to Mr. Gonzalez – yet that did not happen. Barry Scheck, co-founder and Vanessa Potkin, senior attorney of The Innocence Project, as well as, Lauren Kaeseberg, attorney from the Illinois Innocence Project, were present to support and represent their client who was ultimately cleared by DNA evidence.

Unfortunately, the 15 minute proceeding was uneventful by the fact that there was no fanfare, no overdue celebration and more importantly, no apology. Angel was 20 years old at the time of his arrest with no criminal record, convicted with no physical evidence, even though he had a solid alibi. It is also well-known that Angel, a native of Mexico, who was in the country on a visa and visiting family, did not speak or read English well, yet his confession is written entirely in English. The Innocence Project revealed during its investigation that Angel’s alibi had not been explored and that his confession was coerced, since English is not his first language. So, after the 15-minute hearing, Angel’s conviction was vacated and there was no celebration allowed and no apology given by the judge.

The prosecutors involved with Angel’s exoneration have been lauded by Mr. Scheck and Ms. Potkin for their quick resolution of this matter. In his defense, Lake County prosecutor Michael Nerheim did apologize during media interviews after the hearing. But what about a face-to-face courtroom apology for Mr. Gonzalez? Didn’t he at least deserve that? There is much debate as to the amount of compensation an exoneree should receive after a wrongful conviction. As a descendant of enslaved ancestors, liberty is invaluable to me. I believe that some in the judicial system are becoming desensitized to the numerous individuals whose liberty is being jeopardized by misconduct or poor investigative practices. This begs the question: What is liberty worth? I know we have all seen the credit card commercials that go something like this: ballet shoes: $20, ballet lessons: $100, price of seeing your daughter at her first ballet recital: priceless. Someone’s liberty being taken away for over two decades should be worth at least a face-to-face courtroom apology.

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