There’s a little known fact about the Statue of Liberty: broken chains around the statue’s ankle symbolize the historical fact that America broke free from British oppression and the tyranny of the king to establish a democratic republic.
For me, my recent lecture in France symbolizes broken chains upon my exoneration in 2009 after over 18 years in 7 maximum security prisons in New York state. Like my lectures throughout Italy, Germany, Japan and America, I expose the consequences of wrongful convictions to help prevent their harm. Besides lending my life passion and purpose this also eases — stage fright, be damned! — my symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like anxiety and sadness, that affect me as if still incarcerated. Yet within my professional standards to deliver original lectures each time, my difficulty in crash-coursing French was admittedly learning which letters not to pronounce. Thus accomplished, my wife Crystal and I joined Project Innocence France, led by prominent criminal defense attorney, Sylvain Cormier, to advance newly discovered evidence standards via congressional support in France.
As I stood before a crowded, nationally televised auditorium at the Lyon III School of Law, my presentation compared Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo to my very real experience with prosecutorial misconduct in America. According to the National Registry of Exoneration, prosecutorial misconduct is responsible for about 21% of 1,100 registered wrongful convictions in America during 1989-2012. This includes my 1991 arrest where my pro bono legal team and I proved a prosecutor’s knowing use of perjured testimony with coercion and threats against teenage witnesses, resulting in my case becoming the first Latin-American man proven “actually innocent” in NY state legal history without DNA-evidence.
To encourage current and future Project Innocence France law student interns to fight all causes of wrongful convictions, however, I discussed that in 1787 the Charity Judiciary Association became the first French association of lawyers, nobility and business folk devoted to fighting wrongful convictions, prompting King Louis the 16th to voice support. Smiling, Charity Judiciary members present also agreed that Alexis de Tocqueville’s take in “Democracy In America” that solitary confinement harms prisoner health is still empirically supported after he visited Sing Sing prison in 1836, the same prison that released me in 2009. Refocusing, I concluded with how the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism has grown to include freedom and democracy as well as the international friendship between France and America and other countries to secure human rights around the world, and why law students should help stop wrongful convictions.
Then came fun beyond shaking hands and my private encouragement to law students wherever their fight against wrongful convictions occurs. As the culinary capital of the world, France offered gastronomical delights from fresh rum crepes and foie gras to fine quality blue cheeses and buttery snails, one splashing a restaurant window from over-squeezed snail tongs launching it. Moreover, beyond the Rhone and Saone Rivers lay the Gallo-Roman Museum where an ancient Roman amphitheater overlooking Lyon’s cobbled streets teemed with shoppers, beautiful accordion music and occasional beggars dressed like goats clacking and bleating for money. Paris, too, was equally impressive by speeding train two hours away with its Arc de Triomphe, Avenue des Champs-Élysées and Notre-Dame Cathedral that Crystal and I explored while kissing by pedaled taxi. Our trip concluded by visiting Zurich, Switzerland where subway police allowed public drinking and drunkenness with stern, watchful looks that seemed to limit Swiss nightlife fun to just that.
Was this trip worth it before my own drunk-with-sleep, jet-lagged return to America? Yes! For me, lecturing throughout the world with cultural explorations lends additional meaning, purpose and joy amid my broken chains and the losses and pain that I still feel after my wrongful incarceration. I believe, as my first pro bono attorney, MaryAnn DiBari, has always encouraged, that innocent men and women who are wrongfully convicted must step out of Lady Liberty’s broken chain and look to God for the light of love and liberty that exonerates them and helps heal our wounds. While I lost over 6,700 days of freedom in prison as an innocent man, I have more reasons to make the most of whatever days I have left.
For encouragement, I keep the poet Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus (1883) in mind. Engraved on bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, it says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to which I add: And your innocent in prison who deserve liberty, justice and equality!
This, as the French would say, is my “raison d’ etre, or reason for existence, everyday, every journey, to scatter more apple seeds for justice to help stop wrongful convictions.