It’s improbable that a prisoner on death row will ever have the opportunity to educate a group of judges about the flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system. However, WTI helped to turn that improbable scenario into a reality recently.
On September 25, 2018, a contingent from Witness to Innocence conducted an Accuracy & Justice (A&J) workshop at the Washington State 60th Annual Judicial Conference in Yakima, WA. During the A&J workshop, a panel of three exonerated death row survivors engaged 20 judges in a facilitated conversation about the root causes of wrongful convictions. Although WTI has conducted A&J workshops for more than 100 prosecutors over the past year, the workshop in Yakima was the first time that WTI interacted with judges to address the judicial role in wrongful convictions.
Two WTI Board members, Elizabeth Zitrin, a defense attorney from San Francisco, CA, and Sarah Marquez, a prosecutor from New York, NY, teamed up to serve as WTI’s Attorney-Facilitators for the session. Kwame Ajamu, death row exoneree from Ohio, Sabrina Butler-Smith, death row exoneree from Mississippi, and Gary Drinkard, death row exoneree from Alabama, were the WTI members who served as educators. As Ajamu noted: "Gary, Sabrina, and I brought our A-game for sure and made those judges cry." Butler-Smith said that the A&J workshop was a wonderful experience, commenting that "the people in the audience were very moved by what we said and they asked a lot of questions concerning our experiences on death row."
Zitrin added: "The insights of the exonerees triggered deep and sensitive questions and conversation with engaged and thoughtful judges. We are eager to engage other judges from both trial and appellate courts. This was an enlightening experience."