Monday, July 10, 2023

Via the ACLU: My Journey From Death Row to Becoming an Advocate for Justice

My Journey From Death Row to Becoming an Advocate for Justice

In 2006, I was sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit. The jury in my case was split 8-4. Eight people thought I was guilty and should be executed, and four people thought I was not guilty and should not be. Despite the divided jury, I was sentenced to death.

At the time in Florida, it was possible for a person to be sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury. Only in 2017 did the law change to require a unanimous jury. But this year, Florida took a step backwards, reinstating non-unanimous juries for the death penalty.

Florida is one of two states that still sends people to death row even if the jury is split. It’s no surprise that Florida also has more wrongfully convicted people exonerated from death row than any other state — in almost every case, the exonerated person was sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury.

When I was sent to death row, I was afraid. Like many people, I believed the people on death row were monsters, the worst of the worst. As soon as I got there, each one of the guys asked me my name and what county I was from. They passed around a pillowcase and each person shared a little something — food, cigarettes, coffee — so I could have something for my first days on the row. I saw the real human part of the guys, and those people are not monsters.

I was on death row for three years until 2009, when the Florida Supreme Court vacated my conviction. In a unanimous decision, the justices said the government didn’t have enough evidence and I shouldn’t have been convicted. I’m the 23rd person to be exonerated from Florida’s death row.

Coming home has been a journey.

Even though I was exonerated, I still had a criminal record. It took me four years to get the state to update my record to show my conviction had been vacated. But I still have difficulty with the background check when I apply for jobs or for an apartment — all they see is that I’ve been arrested for murder, not that I was wrongfully convicted. I still don’t have my voting rights restored. Only last year did I get my first real job after my trial. The process to erase a record and get compensation for a wrongful conviction in Florida is extremely difficult. It’s not enough that my conviction was vacated by a unanimous Florida Supreme Court. A person seeking compensation for a wrongful conviction also has to produce a certificate of innocence from a prosecutor or judge.

Fourteen years later, I still have physical and emotional effects from the row: anxiety, high blood pressure, a chronic sinus infection. Even though I’ve been exonerated, I feel like I’m serving a life sentence.

It is still hard for me to sleep — I have to imagine myself in a story. These days, I imagine I’m a superhero — people don’t know my identity, and I advocate for justice in the Florida legislature.

In this case, it’s not just a story for me to sleep; it’s my reality. I became an advocate for ending the death penalty and reforming the criminal justice system soon after returning home. Today, I’m the executive director of Witness to Innocence, an organization that empowers death row exonerees and works to end the death penalty.

Earlier this year, I advocated against the law that reinstated non-unanimous juries in Florida for the death penalty. Despite being living proof that non-unanimous juries are not in the interest of justice, the state legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the law. I hear many politicians and lawmakers say they want to be tough on crime, but that isn’t going to lower the crime rate.

Despite what’s happening in Florida’s state politics, I know that Floridians are stronger when we are united, rather than divided.

When I was in the courtroom and I heard “We, the people of Florida, sentence you to die,” I heard a lot of power in that phrase. We the people are the power. As Floridians we have to stop allowing division to keep us from making things right in Florida: from the criminal justice system, to the rights of LGBTQ people, to immigration. We all want life and freedom here in Florida. We want fairness and equality. We have to stand together to make that a reality. That’s why this summer, I’m organizing a speaking tour across the state to bring us together. I use my voice to unite us across our differences. That’s how I understand my experience of wrongful conviction and the death penalty.

One of the first times I spoke about my experience was at a Catholic Mass. The priest introducing me explained that God tests us to be a powerful voice, and those stories are carried through history and become powerful enough to touch people. He considered my experience one of those powerful stories.

If you look at the stories in the Bible, God took people and gave them an assignment. And I feel like God chose me and took me through death row to be an advocate for justice and to help people. Despite what I’m going through, that is the job I’m going to keep doing until the day I die.

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Published July 10, 2023 at 10:50AM
via ACLU ( via ACLU