In the fall of 2000, I decided to write a book about the death penalty. I didn’t want to write an “innocence” book, because I thought it was pretty clear to everyone that innocent people ended up on in prison and on death row in shockingly high numbers. (I was wrong—even ten years later, with the number of DNA exonerations standing at over 250, it’s still not clear to a surprising number of people that there are innocent people in prison.)
Thomas K. Lowenstein
Here was my idea: pick two death row inmates at random and write everything I could about their cases, interviewing them, their families, their lawyers, the victims’ families, the prosecutors, the judge, the jurors—everyone who would talk. My idea was to just tell two stories: Here’s what the death penalty is like for those who live with it. I didn’t want to pick any particular case, I didn’t want to try to make a point—just pick two random people, write about them, and see if it could help readers understand the death penalty.
When it came time to reach out to random death row inmates, the first place to pick was easy: Texas, execution capitol of the country. For the other place, I picked Philadelphia—because, since I was living in Boston at the time, it seemed as close to the deep south in death penalty practice as I could find anywhere near me. I had heard of the infamous training tape, put together by an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia in the mid-80’s, in which young ADA’s were taught how to weed people of color off juries, since they were less likely to give the death penalty. And I knew, through my death penalty work, that something like 95% of the people on death row from Philadelphia were African-American. Around that time, in fact, while 40% of the population in Philadelphia was black, 85% of the people sent to prison from there were black. (This is very similar to the percentages in Louisiana, where I live today—about 35% of the state is black, and about 70% of the prisoners.)
I eventually corresponded with two inmates, one from Texas, one from Philadelphia. The man from Philadelphia, Walter Ogrod, turned out to be innocent (and white—almost as rare when it comes to Philadelphia men on death row). I wrote his story for a local paper in 2004, you can read it here: Philadelphia City Paper.
As I worked on Ogrod’s case for several years, I was repeatedly struck by the need for an Innocence Project in Philadelphia. Who could an inmate turn to for help if he were innocent? Ogrod had, in the five years prior to me writing to him, talked to his appellate lawyer three times—once in person—for about 15 minutes each time. How could “the system”, which prosecutors went around defending as a system that worked well, really depend on the utterly random search by an out-of-town, freelance journalist, to bring a strong innocence claim to light?
After my article about Ogrod ran in 2004, a large, private law firm took over his case. (As of today, 6 years later, it seems his case is finally getting close to DNA testing that might settle the question of his guilt once and for all—a good example of just how long these cases can take, and how much work has to go into proving even one person innocent.) But even that was random, lucky; Philadelphia needed an Innocence Project, and needed one badly. As badly as Texas, Louisiana, Illinois—the places across the country that had, each in their own time, become the poster-states for shoddy justice that sent innocent men to prison and death row in shocking numbers.
Then, in early 2009, at an Innocence Conference in Houston, I mentioned my Philadelphia experiences in a meeting, and afterwards Marissa Bluestine came up to me: “We’re starting an innocence project in Philadelphia,” she said. “Thank God,” I answered. “I know the first case you should do.”
I told her about Ogrod, about the snitch who’d sent him to death row, about some of the other men that same snitch had put away for life based on stories he’d made up. (She was already familiar with some of the cases.)
Which is how I got involved with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project (PIP). If ever an organization was founded to meet a profound and specific need, PIP is it. If ever a city needed an Innocence Project to try to bring some accountability and justice to a troubled justice system, Philadelphia is it. If ever lawyers were smart and tough enough to do it, it’s Marissa Bluestine and her team at PIP.
Thomas K. Lowenstein is a writer, journalist, editor, and policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime and in campaigning against the death penalty, he has worked tirelessly to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Born in New York, educated in Boston, Mr. Lowenstein now lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel, THE GHOST DETECTIVE.
All opinions expressed by Thomas K. Lowenstein are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.