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Sleep No More

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An excerpt from a Memorandum of Law of an Amended Petition for Post Conviction Relief filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas:

Marshall Hale is an innocent man convicted of a crime he did not commit. This fact has been known by the Commonwealth since the police ran tests on Mr. Hale's blood during his trial which determined conclusively that he did not rape the victim. Since that time--at 3:00 p.m. on September 26, 1984 -- the Commonwealth has repeatedly thwarted Mr. Hale's attempts to establish his innocence: first by withholding the very evidence within its control that proves his innocence, then by providing the indecipherable information and arguing against the appointment of either counsel or expert to allow him to understand it. Because the Commonwealth so egregiously violated Mr. Hale's protected rights to due process of law, and because the Commonwealth ensured that Mr. Hale would remain ignorant of the very evidence to prove his innocence, this Court should grant Mr. Hale's petition, reverse his conviction and set him free. Mr. Hale has already spent 26 years in prison serving a sentence meant for another man...

The memorandum was filed by Marissa Boyers Bluestine, the legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Ms. Bluestine is a mother of three, whose husband is a schoolteacher and musician. She rarely gets vacation time with her family. But has no complaints. Sharp, dedicated, skilled, she is also one of funniest women I've ever met, which I'm convinced comes in handy considering she's committed her life to overcoming the often insurmountable task of overturning wrongful convictions -- of setting imprisoned innocent people free.

Marissa admitted to me that, for many lawyers, having guilty clients is preferable. It offers the opportunity of exercising your lawyering skills, of getting that rush of being a trial lawyer by giving your client their constitutional right to their day in court. With innocent clients, she adds, you don't sleep.

Stories like Marshall Hale's are the norm throughout the 53 U.S. projects under the umbrella of the Innocence Network, which also include an additional 13 projects outside the U.S. There have been 317 innocent people exonerated as a result of DNA testing. The Innocence Project is responsible for 179 of those exonerations. The IP lawyers are also committed to reforming a broken criminal justice system. The word "broken" is mine, not theirs. In a recent study, it was determined that 4 percent -- 1 out of every 25 Death Row inmates -- are innocent.

The death penalty issue is obviously a divisive one. But whether one is for or against, you can not deny the basic illogic -- if we know the system is flawed, if we know there are innocent people on Death Row, then until the system is reformed, should we not abandon the death penalty to protect those who are innocent?

On a recent John Oliver Last Week Tonight, he showed a clip of a debate led by Brian Williams in which he prefaced a question to Texas Governor Rick Perry with the information that Gov Perry had been responsible for over 200 executions. Before Mr. Williams could continue, the audience cheered and applauded Gov. Perry. Mr. Williams then asked Gov.
Perry "Do you ever lose any sleep over whether or not any of those executed were innocent?" Gov. Perry quickly answered, "No. I do not."

It's a horrifying concept to me. How do you survive living in a cell knowing you are innocent? Many of those exonerated whom I have met seem to have a more benign, grateful attitude toward life than those of us who walk free. Many find a religious or spiritual stronghold. It's as if they know that letting loose the anger and the rage against the injustice would only imprison them again. In developing The Divide, premiering July 16 on WEtv (w/ co-creator Tony Goldwyn), our attempt to portray their stories as well as those dedicated to the Innocence Project has been a humbling experience.

Every night before going to bed, after long days and nights of fighting the fight, Marissa Bluestine says good night to her children, then lays awake for a moment before drifting off to sleep and thinks about Marshall Hale, still in his cell after 26 years.

"What is Marshall doing right now?" Marissa thinks to herself.

While in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, I think it's safe to assume, is dreaming.