What is the Innocence Network Conference?
The Innocence Network Conference is an annual two-day conference. The location of the conference changes every year. This year’s conference took place in Memphis, Tennessee at the Peabody Hotel. There were around 800 attendees comprised of lawyers, law students, legal scholars and professors as well as exonerees and their family members. There were attendees from around the world. For instance, there were exonerees and lawyers from Taiwan at the conference.
For most, the conference was more than just a learning experience. In fact, a lot of the attendees were there to network. For example, Kent Roach and Amanda Carling from the University of Toronto met attendee representatives from The National Registration of Exonerations to ask questions about the exoneration registry as they hope to create a Canadian version.
There were also attendees at the conference who have family members that are currently in prison that they believe are wrongfully convicted.
All of the attendees were in the same room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, however, throughout the day everyone branched off into smaller groups as there were several different seminars to attend. After dinner on the first night, all of the exonerees who attended were introduced. Our group had the opportunity to sit with one of the exonerees from Texas. We got to speak with him candidly and learn more about the struggles he has faced. After the conference on the second day there was an innocence march to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Ultimately, the conference expanded my knowledge on what I have learnt about wrongful convictions to date and left me feeling inspired. It was an eye-opening experience to consider the miscarriages of justice that have occurred and continue to occur. This also reminded me that a lot of work needs to be done to improve the Canadian Justice System.
Why Should Law Students Attend the Innocence Network Conference?
The conference is extremely informative and regardless of whether students are interested in Crown or Defence work and will expand their knowledge on several aspects of wrongful convictions. Further, if students are interested in doing appeal work on behalf of wrongfully convicted clients they will get the opportunity to hear from skilled lawyers who work tirelessly to free their innocent clients.
For example, at one of the seminars, lawyer David Singleton shared his experience working on his client Tyra Patterson’s case. Mr. Singleton worked very hard and creatively to free Ms. Patterson (who was in attendance at the conference). Mr. Singleton told us that he learnt that unusual allies such as politicians can be instrumental in exonerating clients. Mr. Singleton reached out to tough on crime conservative politicians and shared his client’s story with them in order to gain their support and get their help. Further, Mr. Singleton strategically utilized the media; he started an online petition for his client and he also made a commercial about Ms. Patterson to have her story gain publicity.
It was difficult to decide which seminars to attend as there were so many different options and I wish I could have attended them all. Out of the seminars I did attend, my favourite seminar was entitled “Exonerated Women Speak Out – Hear Our Voices.” This seminar was led by a panel of wrongfully convicted women including Amanda Knox and Maria Shepherd.
The group of women on the panel spoke about the unique challenges that they have faced as a result of their wrongful convictions. For example, many of the women shared that their wrongful convictions have caused them to be suicidal or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Maria Shepherd had the shortest sentence of all the women on the panel, however, she reminded everyone that although she is no longer in prison the psychological sentence that she faces will last a lifetime. Many of the women mentioned that they need therapy to deal with the psychological traumas of their wrongful convictions. Another challenge that members of the panel faced as a result of being wrongly incarcerated, was the separation from their families, especially their children, or the fact that being in prison impeded their ability to ever have children.
Amanda Knox shared some of the difficulties that she faced with her wrongful conviction which included being villainized and sexualized by the media. She also highlighted that many women are convicted of crimes that never actually occurred. For instance, mothers are often accused of killing their children when their children actually died of natural causes.
Even though the women on the panel faced many challenges, they recognized the importance of speaking out about the unique issues surrounding the wrongful convictions of women and helping others. For example, Hannah Overton, one of the women on the panel, has started a non-profit organization that helps women in Texas prisons. Another one of the women regained her nursing license and obtained a Master’s Degree.
The theme of women and wrongful convictions came up in other seminars. For instance, during Kent Roach’s presentation he said that the injustices of wrongful convictions are often considered too narrowly. He suggested that wrongful convictions need to be considered in a broad context and that there needs to be more of a focus on the wrongful convictions of women. He also said that law professors need to focus on women and wrongful convictions more when teaching criminal law courses.
Another interesting theme that resonated throughout several of the seminars was racism and wrongful convictions. Professor Barbara Creel from the University of New Mexico School of Law mentioned that lawyers need to be more culturally competent. I think this is particularly true for Canadian lawyers as they need to be aware that there may be linguistic barriers with clients. For example, there can be a linguistic prejudice with Indigenous clients. At the conference, we were given a handbook called “Communicating Effectively with Indigenous Clients.” This handbook is a helpful tool that delineates some of the differences between Aboriginal English and Standard English. I think it is important that this handbook be circulated among lawyers in Canada in order to break the linguistic barriers between lawyers and Indigenous clients. Ultimately, these are just a few takeaway notes from what I learnt at the conference and each seminar I attended taught me something invaluable about wrongful convictions.