“The legal system failed each one of you. I’m part of that system. I don’t know if anyone has ever apologized to you — has said, ‘We are sorry for what has happened to you, personally.’ I think everybody in the chain of command that put you where you were should have the humility and the decency and the humanity to have apologized to you years ago.”
That’s what constitutional lawyer Stephen Rohde, vice president of Death Penalty Focus and past chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, told the five members of the Innocence Day panel at Loyola Law School on Oct. 7. He rose from the audience in the school’s Robinson Courtroom to pronounce those words to Kash Register, imprisoned 34 years for a murder he didn’t commit, and Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years in prison, falsely convicted of robbery and murder.
Both were exonerated with the help of Loyola’s Project for the Innocent.
Also on the panel were Nick Yarris, behind bars for 23 years for rape and murder until he became the first person on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence in Pennsylvania, and Gloria Killian, who served 16 years in California prisons for supposedly masterminding a 1981 robbery and murder.
The last panel member was Ronnie Sandoval, mother of Arthur Carmona, who was freed after three years for armed robberies he didn’t commit. A few years after being exonerated, Carmona was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
Part of Death Penalty Focus Week and cosponsored by the anti-death penalty organization, Innocence Day focused on wrongful convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations declared that a record number of these erroneous convictions, 87, were overturned in 2013 alone. Since 1989, the registry has documented more than 1,300 such cases.
According to a project at UC Berkeley Law School, California leads the nation in wrongful convictions, which would come as no surprise to members of the panel.
Obie Anthony stressed that it’s actually easy to be wrongfully convicted. “I say this to people: ‘When was the last time that somebody said to you that you looked like someone else?’” he said. “And I’ve been spreading that message since I’ve been out.”
Kash Register pointed out how difficult it was to overturn his conviction. “It’s been a long time. It was a long, long road,” he said. “And, you know, going to the [parole] board 11 times and getting denied for no reasons, I did everything possible to get out. So I went through a lot, me and my mother. I’m just grateful for the people of Project Innocence and all that they did. Thank you.”
Gloria Killian, a former law student herself and the current executive director of Action Committee for Women in Prison, concurred. “If the prosecutor’s office gets you in their sights, if you are the target, they will not give up no matter what,” she said. “And they’ll do whatever is necessary to make sure that you spend life in prison without any possibility of getting out.”
Ronnie Sandoval, whose son was wrongfully convicted, said systemic changes were badly needed. “Our system is completely broken,” she warned. “We know for a fact that innocent people have been sentenced to death. How in the world can we continue to sentence anyone to death, knowing the major flaws in our judicial system?”
Nick Yarris remarked, “The only thing that makes sense in our society is our positivity. And you’ll find that every man who’s been set free lives his life for a reason. We can’t help but be grateful for what you did for us.”
Joseph Trigilio, a federal public defender representing men and women on death row in their Habeas Corpus petitions, moderated Innocence Day. He told The Tidings the main goal was to inspire law students to realize “they can help.” Hopefully, it would inspire other members of the community as well.
“Lawyers were here, a lot of other professions were here today, so it’s just getting them to realize that this happens,” said Trigilio, supervising attorney for the Project for the Innocent. “I think too often we think that the system totally works, and that these kinds of mistakes don’t get made. But having this diverse panel exposes: ‘Gosh, anything can happen to any of us.’ Gloria was a law student. Nick doesn’t fit the profile you might think is wrongfully convicted.
“So I think it’s really important to let people know: ‘Look, mistakes happen. But, hey, we can actually do something about it.’”