One of a series of useful civic actions for homebound citizens
So, how’s it going for you? Getting tired of being shut in and told you can’t leave? It does have its limits, doesn’t it? But hang in there. One of these days—pretty much a day of our own prudent choosing—you and I will walk out the door and be free to go anywhere we wish.
But on that day, other good people will still be confined against their will. I’m talking about innocent people behind bars. Do you know that thousands among the 2,200,000 men and women found guilty and currently incarcerated in the United States are actually innocent? I’ve been haunted by wrongful conviction and imprisonment ever since I was a teenager snapped into handcuffs and seemingly on my way to a penitentiary—or execution—for a murder I didn’t commit.
It had been a rainy night in Fresno, just before Christmas, 1954. At ten o’clock, I finished my after-school shift at the gas station—shut down the pumps, did a quick solvent wipe of my greasy hands, locked up the place, and eagerly jumped into my car to head home—the long way around. Why take a longer way home after a rain? Ask any teenage car nut. We most loved driving when the roads were rain-soaked, because you could spin the tires like a drag racer, slide around corners in a drift, and create explosive cascades of spray blasting through puddles.
So instead of heading right up Van Ness Boulevard toward home, I went the opposite direction down to the Tower District where newly resurfaced pavement was so slick your car would spin itself 360-degrees like a top if didn’t watch out. Once there, I joyfully careened through residential neighborhoods in a hold-your-breath slalom, sliding around dozens of corners until I eventually reconnected with broad and sedate Van Ness Boulevard, settling down into a straight line for home.
That’s when my rearview mirrors suddenly lit up in the dark. Many blocks back the flashing red lights of a police car were bearing down on me at such speed that the headlights were jouncing up and down violently at every little inflection of pavement. A cold chill whipped down my neck—a noose of guilt for a kid who loved pulling pranks and breaking glass. I slowed and pulled over toward the curb, hoping they were headed somewhere beyond me but knowing in my gut that I’d been nailed.
So I stopped at the curb and watched the dazzle of red lights slam to a halt just behind my car. I rolled down my window, preparing to hand over my driver’s license as they strolled up. Never happened. What happened was that two officers spilled out and rushed toward my car in a crouch—with their guns drawn. They stopped on either side just behind the doors, and the one on my side screamed through my open window, “Get out with your hands up! Now!” There was a shrill note of near hysteria in his voice.
Oh shit. My hair went electric. My mind lurched momentarily toward meltdown. My palms were instantly wet. Not damp. Wet. All in a couple of seconds.
“I said NOW!” he shrieked. “NOW!”
Moments later I was spread-eagled face-down on the hood of my car, a policeman’s forearm hard across my neck mashing my face into the wet warm metal. His partner pried my splayed-out hands off the hood, yanking them back around to my spine. I winced as the handcuffs pinched into my wrists but managed not to react, for fear of getting shot.
They holstered their pistols and stood me up. One officer behind me kept a grip on the chain between the handcuffs as the other investigated the interior of my car, finding nothing of interest. The he opened the trunk of my car, shouted, “Here it is!” and triumphantly yanked out a red metal one-gallon gas can, something everyone in those days carried as reserve. Except mine was empty, probably from fueling our lawn mower.
“Look!” he shouted, waving the can to his partner. “This son-of-a-bitch is dead meat!”
In fact I felt like dead meat. And I would have been dead meat if John Willey hadn’t driven by at that very moment. “Mr. Willey” was the father of a good friend and a prominent attorney in Fresno—a small enough town in the ‘50’s that police officers and lawyers and prosecutors all knew each other pretty well.
Mr. Willey had recognized my car and slid over to the curb in front of it. He eased out of his pearl-grey Cadillac, straightened his necktie, and sauntered back to the policemen holding me prisoner.
“Evening, Tim. Bob. How’re you boys tonight?” Mr. Willey greeted them.
“Evening, Mr. Willey.” they chorused. Lawyers were “Mister” to the police out of respect, the same reason he was “Mister Willey” to me as my friend’s father. I had spent countless hours at the Willey home and in their backyard pool, and we sailed together regularly on Lake Millerton in the foothills.
“Looks like you got yourself a bad guy,” he deadpanned. Despite my petrified and deranged state of mind at the moment, I instinctively recognized a friend setting to work. “What’s the story?”
“This son-of-a-bitch torched a house down in the Tower District. An old man was in it—burned real bad, probably won’t make it,” one of them summed up.
“Yeah,” the other chimed in, “caught the bastard red-handed trying to get away. Drove away like a bat out of hell but we got him. Look at this.” He held up the empty red gas can. “Son-of-a-bitch’s got gas all over his clothes. You can smell it on him.”
The smell was true. I never finished a shift at the station without reeking of gasoline that splashed out of overfilled spouts in those days before automatic shut-off valves on hose pumps.
And as I was to learn from the paper the next day, the old man didn’t make it. This son-of-a-bitch was going to answer for arson, and for murder. Dead meat, dead to rights.
“Well, boys,” Mr. Willey eased into it, “I think you did a real good job.”
“Thanks, Mr. Willey,” one said while the other nodded.
“But I think you still got some more work to do,” he added.
They looked quizzically at him.
“I know this kid pretty well,” Mr. Willey continued. “Well, actually, really well. And I can tell you he didn’t do it.”
They looked both puzzled and disappointed, but needing more.
“Name’s Eliot Daley. Good friend of my boy Rod’s. His parents are Jad and Nan Daley, out on Palm, corner of Indianapolis. You may know ‘em. Good people. Fine people.”
They were nodding in time with his cadence.
“Now Eliot’s no saint. You know kids,” he added confidentially. They nodded some more. “But he’d never do something like that.”
One of them nodded again, but the face of the other wrinkled up like a week-old baked potato, and he began shaking his head in fast little negations, all discombobulated.
“But lookit him, Mr. Willey,” he protested. “Dark pants, white tee shirt just like somebody said. Covered with gas. And driving like hell to get away from there. And this,” waving the prized red gas can at Mr. Willey.
All true. Levis and white tee shirts were our uniform as teenagers. And they didn’t yet know where the gas on my clothes came from.
“Eliot pumps gas down at Chet’s station on the bend of Van Ness,” Mr. Willey explained. “Covers the night shift. I’m guessing he’s still in his work gear.”
I nodded. Strangled with emotion, I could not produce any sound whatsoever with my voice. I didn’t even try.
Minutes later, still never having spoken a word, I was sitting behind the wheel of my car, little contortions twitching my limbs, spasms of relief shuddering through my central nervous system. Mr. Willey and the two cops were bantering like old friends beside Mr. Willey’s big Cadillac.
I fumbled with the ignition switch, too shaken to be smooth about anything. I got the engine fired up after a couple of cranks. The car jerked and lurched when my quivering left leg clumsily let out the clutch to pull away from the curb toward home. I drove very slowly all the way to our driveway, tentative, groping along as though for the first time at the wheel.
I tumbled onto my bed still in my gasoline-splotched clothes, twisted fitfully a while in catastrophic fantasies of what almost was, and finally fell asleep thinking how many innocent men and women must be in jail because Mr. Willey had not come along.
Okay, it’s time for you to be the new Mr. Willey. There are thousands of innocent men and women locked away in our prisons, many for life and some awaiting execution. We know this because of the amazing work done by organizations dedicated to rescuing people wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Their breathtakingly convincing exoneration of innocent prisoners on death row has even prompted some states to banish the death penalty completely, realizing without doubt that they have executed innocent people in the past and were doomed to do it again, given the precariousness of prosecutions and verdicts.
You can help these innocent people receive justice and freedom. You can return them to their families. To live life as they deserve. Really. You can. I’m going to introduce you to several organizations that have stepped up to the brutally demanding tasks of unraveling wrongful convictions—work that commingles brilliance, doggedness, endurance, determination, discouragement, and hope. Starting today, that work can include your own contribution to freeing innocent people from continued incarceration.
Centurion is the progenitor of organizations working to free the innocent in prison. Founded in 1980, this boutique-sized powerhouse has always tackled the toughest of the tough cases—rape and murder. Many of their 63 exonerated clients had been on death row, sometimes being exonerated mere days before their planned execution. Centurion pioneered the time-consuming, meticulous re-investigation and reconstruction of a flawed conviction many years before—one not readily reversed by DNA. Centurion unravels miscarriages of justice occasioned by false testimonies, deceitful prosecutors, ill-informed judges, forced confessions, withheld evidence, and gullible juries. They often convince a coerced witness to finally speak the truth, discover new exculpatory evidence, and even on occasion find the real criminal.
If you want to experience the gritty, tireless work of Centurion up close and personal, read John Grisham’s recent book The Guardians which is a thinly veiled portrait of Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion, going about the relentless, frustrating, painstaking, inspired work required to overturn a miscarriage of justice and triumphantly free one more innocent person. It will surely inspire you to join in this life-saving effort.
And if you want to do something useful right now to help free innocent men and women still incarcerated, just click below to enter Centurion’s website. A few minutes’ rummaging around there will help you recognize the best way for you to join in this work: https://centurion.org/about-us/
The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project, launched in 1992, has grown to become the largest and most comprehensive of those seeking freedom for the innocent. With a comprehensive staff, phenomenal expertise in DNA analysis, and legal resources around the country, The Innocence Project has exonerated 367 wrongfully convicted prisoners including 130 found guilty of murder, 21 of whom were on death row.
The Innocence Project has developed a national cadre of some 800,000 supporters and offers a broad array of opportunities to help them do this work. Check out their tab on “Get Involved” where you will find many ways (beyond giving donations) to make your voice and influence felt in redeeming the woefully widespread injustices responsible for current—and future—incarceration of innocent Americans. Check it out now: https://www.innocenceproject.org/about/
The Innocence Network
And if you want to dive into a granular smorgasbord of entities carrying on the work of freeing the innocent here and abroad, The Innocence Network is the place to start. Here you will find access to 68 different-but-interlinked organizations worldwide all working to exonerate innocent men and women now in prison. These include independent non-profits, law schools and universities, units of public defender offices, and the pro-bono services of law firms—many of which are seeking people like you to support their initiatives in your state or locality. https://innocencenetwork.org/
“Homemade Lemonade #3: Picking the Lock on Wrongful Incarcerations” is one of a series of action steps written by Eliot Daley for those who want to make good use of their time in shelter. You can subscribe to his blog, “Out of My Mind” at https://www.eliotdaley.com where he posts commentary and facilitates advocacy on matters of importance.