There’s No Need to Celebrate International Wrongful Conviction Day, in My Opinion

On International Wrongful Conviction Day, what does a person who was wrongfully convicted do?

You probably picture a group of exonerees getting together for dinner and sharing their joy at having their innocence proven as well as their gratitude for being released from prison. But as an exoneree myself, today more than any other day, I’m acutely aware of the fact that even though many of us are no longer behind bars, we are still far from being free.

The same kind of antiquated laws that favor law enforcement over the accused—like the qualified immunity law used to shield officers who falsely accused the innocent—are now keeping me and many others like me from receiving compensation for our suffering and loss. I am one of thousands of people fighting for their livelihood despite having been falsely accused. And it’s past time for lawmakers to take action to address the problem.

I was given a death sentence in 1991 and have now spent 25 years of my life waiting to be executed for a crime I didn’t commit. During that time, among other things, my children developed into adults and had their own children without my assistance or presence. My father passed away and I wasn’t permitted to attend his funeral or say my goodbyes, my mother’s health deteriorated and I was unable to care for her. I am the person who best understands the significance of a day like today.

The Innocence Network created International Wrongful Conviction Day in 2014 to support exonerated people after their release and “raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction.” The help and education are desperately needed.

According to conservative estimates, 1% of Americans I am one of about 20,000 brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers who have been wrongfully imprisoned among the prison population. Some of them pass away in prison before proving their innocence due to the enormous burden of proof needed to overturn a conviction. Additionally, the Supreme Court recently made this procedure even more challenging.

Those who do succeed in breaking free end up chasing justice like a leaf in the wind, exchanging one struggle for another; they leave the prison cell only to deal with poverty and all its problems.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 36 states currently offer exonerees between $50,000 and $100,000 for each year they spent incarcerated as a result of federal compensation laws in place. Granted, despite having already been exonerated, these laws require wrongfully convicted individuals to demonstrate their innocence once more in order to qualify for this compensation. Unfortunately, those who have been wrongfully convicted do not receive any compensation in the other 14 states, which includes Pennsylvania, where I currently reside.

The judge in my case is Anita B. Brody demanded that the state begin a new trial within 180 days or release me, claiming that I, James Dennis, “was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit.” However, Philadelphia’s district attorney appealed the decision. My conviction was overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals as a whole, which upheld Judge Brody’s judgment. I had at last received justice.

My attorneys fought to reach a deal for my release at that point when the prosecutor threatened to start new proceedings after a second confirmation of my innocence. The district attorney redacted the word guilt or any language that suggested my guilt from the deal agreement after the judge reprimanded them for their conduct in my case during the deal hearing and my lawyer read my innocence into the record. If you don’t know the truth—that I’m innocent—you wouldn’t act in such a way. With that deal, however, I was compelled to enter a “no contest” plea to lesser charges and was released after serving my sentence.

Fighting to further establish my innocence would have likely required years more behind bars while I awaited the outcome of a new trial. I made the difficult choice that would allow me to return home and see my kids and my sick mother before she passed away as well. I only wished for the nightmare to be over.

Those who are released after being wrongfully imprisoned must make these awful, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decisions. We need Wrongful Conviction Day because of horrifying tales like mine and others. And while we wait for change, law enforcement continues to be corrupt, ruining lives.

There is no amount of money that, in my opinion, would be sufficient to achieve justice as long as the city continues to fight against me receiving any compensation for what was done to me. Nothing can make up for the time I never got to live my dreams as a free person, time I never got to spend with my children, parents, siblings, or friends.

So, on International Wrongful Conviction Day, what does someone who has served more than two decades in prison for a crime they did not commit?

I long for the time when this day won’t be necessary.

James “Jimmy” Dennis is an R&B singer, songwriter, producer, devoted father, brother, and son who served a 25.5-year sentence to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Since his release, Jimmy has taken a strong stand for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, defending both his post-release rights and the rights of others. His music can be found across all platforms. Observe him on Instagram.

The author’s own opinions are presented in this piece.

Micheal Kurt

I earned a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport science from Oregon State University. He is an avid sports lover who enjoys tennis, football, and a variety of other activities. He is from Tucson, Arizona, and is a huge Cardinals supporter.

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