By Tyler Cox
“In all the years I’ve been coming here, there’s never been this many,” commented James Kluppelberg as he watched the stream of exonerees cross the stage on Saturday night at the annual Innocence Network Conference in Orlando, Florida. He wasn’t wrong: over 120 exonerees attended the Conference in late May, more than any other Conference before. The procession moved forward at a brisk pace, with each wrongfully convicted man and woman getting their chance at the podium to announce to the immense ballroom full of supporters how long they had been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Though the line never paused, it seemed to go on for hours. And after years of getting impatient waiting on lines (much to the chagrin of my mother I’m sure), I had found the one line I wished had never stopped.
As I walked into the lobby of the Hilton on Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that there would be people from all around the world from all different walks of life, but I also knew that everyone would fit into one of two basic categories: the exonerees and the lawyers/students. I figured this dichotomy would last throughout the weekend and both crowds would keep to themselves. After all of the bowling we’ve done at LAI over the past few months, I should have known better.
After checking in to our rooms, a fellow LAI’er and I went to the pool to take advantage of the Florida sunshine. We were greeted by exoneree and recent Loyola Law grad Jarrett Adams, a walking contradiction to my initial thoughts about the distinction between the two groups of Conference attendees. After discussing the prospect of finals week looming over our return to Chicago, Jarrett imparted some words of advice that embodied the entire weekend for me: go to the panels, listen to the speakers, and learn some great things. But most importantly: meet the exonerees, hear their stories, and learn from them.
For the rest of the weekend, that’s exactly what I tried to do. I went to sessions and panels titled “Ethical and Legal Obligations Under the New Innocence Standard” and “Working With Prosecutors: Why It Matters.” I learned from some of the best attorneys in the world, like Barry Scheck, Mike Ware, Justin Brooks and Karen Daniel, among countless others.
Most importantly, as Jarrett suggested, I was fortunate enough to meet exonerees from all over the world. I watched as Taiwan’s first exoneree Chen Long-Qi received an unexpected but well-deserved standing ovation in the middle of a Q&A session. I met recent double-exoneree Amanda Knox poolside. At dinner, I was seated next to Alvin Jardine and Shaun Rodrigues, Hawaii’s first and most recent exonerees, respectively. I ran into future film-star Ryan Ferguson at lunch. I bonded with Jerry Miller, one of LAI’s first clients, over our shared love of Jordan Brand sneakers. I got to celebrate the birthday of my friend and LAI client Jacques Rivera. And, just before the weekend came to a close, I got to meet fellow Wisconsin Badger Chris Ochoa, one of the reasons I got involved in the Innocence Network in the first place.
Above everything else—the workshops, the panels, the keynote speakers—that is what I will remember most about the 2015 Innocence Network Conference: the power of meeting the people that fell victim to a system that didn’t accomplish its goal of justice for all.
As Saturday night was winding down, the sounds of Antione Day and the Exoneree Band filled downtown Orlando’s Tin Roof with music, and I watched as the dance floor became a living, breathing, twirling symbol of the innocence movement as whole. Lawyers, exonerees, students, and a few outside citizens built up courage, struggled through their attempts, and ultimately experienced the joy of success—together.