Serving time in prison takes an especially heavy toll on the wrongly accused. Inmates and their families navigate the criminal justice system and try to pick up the pieces.
Guests: Giovanni Reid, Chester Hollman Sr., Deanna Hollman, Arianna Freeman, Jarrod Little, Reuben Jones, Lindsay Massarelli, Joshua Glenn
Photo: Dave Rose
Read the transcript
DOING TIME TRANSCRIPT
Jamie J: From WHYY and First Person Arts in Philadelphia, this is Commonspace. I’m your host, Jamie J. Here on Commonspace, live storytelling connects US to each other— and the world. And I’ll take you deeper into the stories with conversations that might just challenge your perceptions.
You know, shortly after First Person Arts was founded, back in 2000, we wanted to produce a play called “The Exhonorated”…It’s the story of five men and one woman, all wrongfully convicted, placed on death row, and later exonerated and freed, after serving years in prison. All these years later, innocence and exoneration are still relevant.
So today we focus on stories about doing time. Stories of prisoners navigating the legal system that might free them…but also stories of family members and ex-offenders coping with the aftermath of incarceration.
Robert Moore: I had an older guy that he said, how much time you doin’? I said I’m doing 24 to 62 years…and he said you can do two things, you make it a fool’s paradise or wise man’s university.
Ellen (no last name): Housing is major. And even if your family is supportive, how long can they carry you, financially, you know? You have to eat, too. So it’s not just a matter of a bed, you know, it’s going to increase the household expenses if you’re there. So, just to give people housing and a way to support themselves is major.
Chester Hollman: The DA then asked, do you see anyone in the courtroom who looks like the people who did this. She looked around and she said, “No, I don’t see anyone.” So we said ooooh... my heart dropped. My son's gonna be home. But little did we know.
Jamie J: The play, The Exonerated, opens with a short but powerful monologue by Delbert Tibbs, about overcoming the lonely life inside. Delbert is described as a sort of chorus, fading in and out of the action of the play. A black man, 60... his whole personality is described as an old soul song; smooth, mellow but with a relentless underlying rhythm. Of prison life, Delbert says:
This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness;
It is not easy to be open or too curious
It is dangerous to dwell too much on thinking
To wonder who, or why, or when…to wonder how, is dangerous.
How do we the people get out of this hole?
What’s the way to fight?
Might I do what Richard, Ralph and Langston n’ them did?
It is not easy to be a poet here.
Yet, I sing.
Giovanni Reid: “My Story begins in 1991 - at the age of 16 - I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit.
Jamie J: Giovanni Reid was sentenced to life in prison when he was a juvenile. He spent twenty-six years in jail before being released for time served…but being released is not the same as being exhonerated, and he’s still fighting to clear his name.
Extraordinary stories of people freed from jail after years of imprisonment continue to fascinate us. They conjure up the fragility of “proof”, the dependence on inconsistent investigations, and the dire consequences of human error – or even worse, prosecutorial misconduct.
You know, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, between 1989 and 2015 there were one thousand five hundred and thirty five exonerations. In 2016 alone a record number of 166 people were declared innocent. Their alleged crimes ranged from homicides, sexual assault, non-violent and violent crimes.
Jamie J: That’s where Giovanni’s story comes in.
Giovanni Reid: One night when I was walking home with a group of guys that I knew from my neighborhood - one of them decided that they wanted to commit a robbery, so and during the course of that robbery, he shot and killed a man. Within a week, I was criminally charged along with him and another guy. In a little over a year, I was convicted of second degree murder and I was mandatorily sentenced to a life without parole sentence - and I was told that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison.
I was sent to Graterford State Prison at the age of 17 and I can remember going into this crazy place, not knowing really what to expect or what I should do. I knew I had to watch myself, I had to be careful. It wasn't an easy task for me because the only thing I could think of at the time was my case and my appeal. I was really naive at the time because I thought that filing an appeal was a very simple process, but I would come to learn that it would take years and years of filing legal documents with the court before I could even begin to make any kind of type of headway in my case. So, initially during the beginning process I wrote a letter to my attorney asking him what was the status of my case. Several months later, he wrote me a letter and told me that my case was denied and it was put into storage. Now, when he told me that, I was like - how can my case be put into storage when I just got started? My case was just under way.
Well, I knew at that point I would have to do something to help myself, so I began studying the law - the different rational the court is using and how they come up with decisions and legal precedents and all that kind of stuff. I spent years and years of studying and stuff in efforts to try and help myself.
My case got denied all the way through the state courts, and - like ten years later - after my conviction, I was able to get my case over to a federal court and I got a federal judge to hear my case. I was 26 at the time, and just like what happened in state court - my case was denied, so I had to file an appeal. I was beginning to learn, though, that judges are just extremely reluctant to overturn convictions.
But I still had to appeal, so I appealed my case to the Third Circuit, which is the highest court in Pennsylvania. And again it was denied. So, at about this point, I'm 28 years old. This was in 2004. I was out of court for the very very first time since my conviction. I had no plan. So a friend that I was close with, she suggested that "Why don't you put your case story on the internet?" Well, I didn't know anything about the internet. I never had access to the internet. I didn't know what it was capable of doing, but the only thing I kept thinking about was I need to be in court, not on the internet.
So, the story went up in late 2004 - and within a year and a half, I received an email from a guy named _______ . He came forward - he agreed to talk to my lawyers after we found him. I didn't even know where he was at initially - he was in Tennessee. He agreed to talk to the attorneys that I had at the time and said he would come to court and testify for me.
I was excited, my family was excited. We finally had someone to validate my claims of innocence. He told me that he knew I didn't have anything to do with it. That he saw that I was up the street when the incident was taking place. But that excitement was very short lived. Because the day before he was scheduled to come into Philadelphia he got a visit - an unexpected visit - from two Philadelphia homicide detectives who threatened to lock him up. And he didn't really wanna have anything to do with the case after that. So when I went to court, he never showed up. So now, I'm stuck back at ground zero again.
I had to start using different tactics. So I had to petition the judge in Tennessee to order him to come to Philadelphia to testify for me. Took three and a half years. When he finally came to court, he testified consistently with what he said in his initial statement - I just needed the court to agree with me - that he was a credible witness that he was being truthful. Well, the judge retired without making no decisions. Put me right back at square one again.
So, all the financial resources my family used - to get this guy into Philadelphia, it was all for nothing it seemed. I go back in front of another judge who, she said listen, you've got to do it all over again because we can't make a decision on a cold record, you gotta bring him back.
Jamie J: Hearing Reid and other incarcerated people telling their stories, really captures the feeling that in prison time passes at a different pace. Days become weeks or even months or years. After a long delay, Reid was able to restart his case by asking a judge to force his Tennessee witness to testify via Skype – a form of technology that was entirely new to him:
Giovanni Reid: So, I came into the courtroom, I see this big ol’ screen - the witness was on there - he testified again consistently to what he testified to in 2010. But this was now 2012, another two years had elapsed and around this time when he testified for me on the second go around, the United States Supreme Court had decided a case where they had essentially held that it was unconstitutional to mandatorily sentence a juvenile to a life without parole sentence.
Jamie J: This new Supreme Court had a profound effect on Reid’s case, requiring him to be resentenced, therefore opening another opportunity to prove his case. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the decision only applied to cases going forward, which would have left him in jail for life. Giovanni, whose family’s resources to fight for him had at that point been depleted, continues his story:
Giovanni Reid: Now I’m really back at square one, yet again. So, this was the first time that I had to use the knowledge that I gained over the years of studying the law. I had to take up the reins on my own and start fighting for myself now. So, I filed my own appeal, and in 2016, the United States Supreme Court said that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was wrong - that it was a retroactive decision. That it applied to past cases like mine.
So, in April of 2016, my sentence was vacated - and I was ordered to have a new sentencing hearing. So throughout the next year, I was able to negotiate with the District Attorney’s Office, and my case was the first case where they lowered the numbers and gave me a time served sentence and allowed me to regain my freedom.
So, on September the 4th of this year, I was released from custody after 26 long years of being in prison. I'm in a better place now. You know, both physically and mentally. But my fight to prove my innocence is an ongoing battle, and I don't plan to give up until I am able to clear my name and my family’s name. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. (APPLAUSE)
Jamie J: That’s Giovanni Reid, telling his story at a First Person Arts Performance.
Getting out of jail is not the entire battle. All the years lost in legal limbo exact a heavy toll on the exonerated. And story after story of people like Giovanni Reid tell of the difficulties in trying to pick up where they left off. Just imagine how much things have changed in twenty-six years!!
Giovanni Reid: It's a new world out here, now I'm 42 trying to learn things for the first time in my life, but I'm excited about it. I have an opportunity to do something meaningful with my life, to spend time with my family, to get to know all the family that I didn't know – to reconnect with friends and it's been wonderful.
Jamie J: One of the people who helped Giovanni Reed navigate the convoluted waters of our legal system was federal public defender Arianna Freeman. She’s also a board member of First Person Arts. So, Arianna, what’s the process of being a returning citizen after an experience like Giovanni had?
Arianna Freeman: The process is a little different for everyone. The individuals who are fortunate have family and friends who have stayed with them throughout their term of incarceration, and who are available to welcome them into their homes, to maybe offer them jobs, and to generally support them when they get out. But not everyone has that. For that, there are some limited services available, but they are very limited and it can be a real challenge, especially for juvenile lifers who were incarcerated for 30, 40, or 50 years before they became eligible for release in the last year or two.
Jamie J: What are the limitations to their participation in social and political life?
Arianna Freeman: I don’t think in Pennsylvania people who have been convicted of felonies and released are barred from voting, although in some states that is the case. The limitations are generally about jurisdiction, and really how far they can travel. Whether they can travel outside of the state. Juvenile lifers who have been resentenced are going to be on parole for the rest of their lives, unless the state of the law changes. So they have to check with their parole officers about travel outside of this jurisdiction. So if they have friends, or family, loved ones outside of Pennsylvania, they would have to get approval to travel. In addition to that the challenges are certainly getting jobs. If you have, as many of us who know have never been incarcerated, if you have a gap in your resume it’s difficult to find a job. And think about people who have been incarcerated for ten, twenty or more years…and just the fact of the conviction itself is a major deterrent to their ability to get jobs.
Jamie J: Today Giovanni Reid is also helping juveniles navigate the justice system. And it’s not an easy task. Reid’s experience of returning to the general society resonates among a group of returning citizens who were part of a re-entry project documented by Commonspace and Solutions Journalism Project. We hear from Reuben Jones, Lindsay Massarelli, and Joshua Glenn:
Reuben Jones: You know, as a child I loved space exploration as well. And I just always remember, when the astronauts went into space, before they ever sent them off, they had their re-entry plan in place. Yeah, we can send a man to the moon, but we wanna bring ‘em back too. And I think in terms of criminal justice, we’ve gotten away from that, that mindset, we don’t think about who is returning to us, or how or when. But eventually that person is coming home. You can’t have incarceration, you can’t have criminal justice, without a plan to care for those men and women who are returning to those communities. Otherwise what’s the point? When you come home, you can’t get a job, you can’t get adequate housing, can’t get health care, can’t vote, can’t fully participate. So we have to reframe the way we look at re-entry. We don’t have to label them ex-offenders, or prisoners, or convicts, or anything else. They’re human beings, and we gotta think about how we treat and prepare human beings to return to our society after being punished wrong doing.
Lindsay Massarelli: I know for women, trying to re-connect with my son was a big barrier. Housing, trying to get hired…I know for like, men, it’s easy to get a job. They can get roofing, landscaping jobs, anything like that, but with females, when people see a record, they don’t wanna really hire you. If you don’t really have family there for you, that’s a big barrier also. You have a record, it’s kind of easier to fall back into a life of crime. You know, get money the easier way instead of not being able to feed my son I’d rather just make money the easy way rather than not being able to feed him at all.
Joshua Glenn: So I was locked up and charged as an adult, at the age of 16 I was at the house of corrections, that’s where they housed the juveniles at that time. Now, I was locked up for 18 months and then my case was dismissed. And then I got out, and I just seen the injustice of the system, just because my bail was only two thousand dollars, they just held me in there that long just because I couldn’t afford to pay it. So I was locked up for 18 months, the lawyer tried to get me to take this sneaky deal, I didn’t take it. And I got out, I wasn’t able to get back into a regular public school, because they said I was charged as an adult, So they tried to make me take a GED test. I wasn’t able to get my high school diploma in school because I turned 18, and they sent me over to the adult side. And they just totally stopped my school, so it was a lot of barriers when I got out, like I had to really overcome all that stuff in order to get my high school diploma and everything.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts...where live storytelling and conversation connect you to each other— and the world. I’m your host Jamie J. Today we are talking about “Doing Time” - which can refer to many things. But here, it’s about those on the inside, and those waiting patiently for them on the outside, and the journey of re-entering society after a prison stint.
These things matter to more people than one would think. That’s because the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have a vast prison industry and a very large justice system charged with holding it all together.
With so many people in our prisons, it’s easy to see how the cases of people who are wrongly locked up can fall through the cracks – leaving them to spend years trying to prove their innocence. Chester Hollman III and his family have been going through what they describe as a labyrinth of perjuries, less than honest lawyers, contradictory information, and flat out lies. Here’s his story, again from the First Person Arts event, Setting The Record Straight, directed by David O’Connor, told by his father Chester and his sister Deanna:
My wife and I were sitting in the kitchen - and the phone rings, and it's my son's girlfriend. She says - Turn on the TV. We turn the TV on and there's my son's picture, where's he's been accused of a homicide and robbery.
We were devastated, so we are wondering, what are we going to do? Where are we going to go? We called some family members, a few friends, they said you have to go to Philadelphia and go to the Roundhouse. Now, we're from Delaware... Where is the Roundhouse? So, we get directions to go to the Roundhouse, and we get there, and it's actually a round building - couldn't believe it.
So, we go inside and we're looking for our son, and he's nowhere to be found. So, we look and look…no one will give us an answer of how we can find him. Finally, somebody says - you have to get a lawyer to see your son. So, we come back home and my wife looked in the yellow pages and she finds a lawyer.
At the preliminary hearing, the victim's girlfriend is there and she's there to give her account of what happened. Now, they were attacked from behind by two assailants, and knocked to the ground, and her friend was shot and killed. And the DA then asked her, could she identify the person or persons who attacked them? Could she see their faces? And could she recognize them? She said she could. And he asked her - Do you see anyone in the courtroom who looked like the people who did this? She looked around and she said - No, I don't see anyone.
So, we said ooooh... my heart dropped. My son's gonna be home.
But little did we know.
Anyway, my brother-in-law says - You have to get the best lawyer money can buy. So, he looked around - he found __________. He'll take the case, but it's gonna cost $35,000. That was a lot of money.
Jamie J: Chester’s trials and tribulations are so complicated that hearing every detail makes you think of the common expression “to make a long story short.” So here we go, his family goes through a series of lawyers and deal offers, that don’t lead to resolutions.
Chester Hollman: So, we get the money up…come back to Philadelphia to see ___________, and he tells us we're going over to the Roundhouse. So, they put us in an interrogation room and all that one-way glass, mirrors and things. And __________ comes in and he says, “The DA wants to make a deal with you guys. All your son has to do is point someone out. A friend, a buddy, someone he doesn't like very much and say they're the shooter.”
We say – “No, no, no, no, no. We're Christians, we're raised in the church, we know better. We can't do that.” He said, “Well, you think about it because this deal is the only thing you're gonna get. Your son's gonna be in prison for life.” So, he leaves the room and while he's out there, we're looking around. We know they're looking at us and watching us. And we said, “No, we can't do this. My dad was a minister, and he raised us to do what's right. And that's the only way in life, you do what's right.”
So, _______ comes back in, and he states about this deal again. “You better take this deal, because if you don't, your son's going to be in jail for life.” He said, “The deal will send your son to Delaware for 5 years.” And we said no.
“Well then, this is your last chance. You either take the deal or your son is done.” So, I said, “Aren't you our lawyer?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you're fired!”
So, now we gotta get another lawyer. Of course he took half of the money,
So we get our new lawyer. Finally we go to trial, and the girl that was riding with my son, she is to testify. Now, she's a lookout who can't see. She left her glasses somewhere, so she couldn't see anything, she couldn’t give a composite description of anybody, even the people who were supposedly sitting in the van with her. She couldn't identify them at all.
Only thing that connect her with my son, she told the jury, that she was there. And by her being with my son, they connected my son as being there too.
The next person was another so-called eyewitness, who said he saw everything, in the parking lot of the convenience store, and he said it was about a football field away. When the gun went off, the flare from the gun lit my son's face up.
I'm saying - Hmm... this guy is kinda nutty.
So, when our attorney questioned him, he asked him, “How far were you standing when the gun was fired?” “About six feet away.” “Six feet away? You testified before you were a football field away.” So, our lawyer, says to the judge, “This guy's perjured himself. And judge says he has to think about bringing perjury charges up against him.
He never charged the jury with this perjured testimony. He let it go in with the jury. Now, we're waiting for the jury to deliberate. We're out there, me and my wife. Of course, we’re nervous. My son's sitting there, and our lawyer tells us, “Don't get upset at the verdict.” Now, we're really wondering what's going on. 'Cause he's on our side, supposedly.
So, when the jury comes out, the verdict was guilty. And me and my wife... The biggest thing…was when my son turned around and looked at us, with tears in his eyes. We...we couldn't help him. We knew he was scared. He's only 20. What could we do for him? So, they gave him life without parole. Our first time, seeing our son, he came out, he gave me a hug. And when he came over to my wife - she was a small woman - about 90 pounds about maybe close to 4 feet 7 - and he said – “Mom, I can't do this. I can't make it.” My wife, grabbed him by his collar and pulled him down to her. “Snap out of it, you hear me! You’re strong, be strong, be a man.” He said, “Yes, mom...yes, mom.”
And I couldn't believe that one thing gave him strength to carry on. And we prayed every day after that conviction and it's just been hard, but we're still standing.
Deanna: Hello. So, I'm the sister of Chester. I was about 16 when all this took place. I really didn't understand what was happening, you know. My brother... arrested for what? Murder? That can’t be. Even when the trial unfolded, I still felt like, you know, they made a mistake, he's gonna come home. We just had to prove that, go through the cycle of appeals, what have you.
But it took three years for us to go to trial. And in doing so, we never imagined that it would be this far in for us to try to right this wrong. It seemed as though nobody wanted to hear us. The courts didn't want to listen - I mean - my Dad spoke of the trial but there was no evidence. There's no weapon. My brother had no prior convictions. There's no DNA, and there was no motive. My brother was on paid vacation from Brooks Armored Money Trucks. Never been in trouble, good kid.
We didn't uncover certain things until after the trial, though. With the help of our private investigator, Dennis Crossen…without him we wouldn't have uncovered any of the information that I'm about to tell you of. He fought and is still fighting for us. Fought long and hard, trying to locate witnesses. The two witnesses the DA presented at the trial. _________, who did recant his testimony
Questioner: So you’re saying, uh, that you testified falsely…what was it that they wanted you to say that you said?
Witness: They wanted me to say I saw him .
Questioner: And the person that’s locked up now is Chester Holman…
Questioner: Chester Holman III. And did you see Chester Holman III on the night you heard the gunshot in the area of 22nd and Sansom Street in Philadelphia?
Witness: No I didn’t.
Deanna: So that there was a deposition that , my private investigator and a lawyer came together, and he did reveal that he did lie and he was forced to so.
The courts didn’t want to hear that.
They said - well - you still have the other witness, though. So, we said, what are we going to do? You try to go through the chain of the court system, but no one's listening.
So then, our private investigator, once again, if it wasn't for him - like I said, we wouldn't have gotten this far. He sought out the other witness, and he found her...he found her, but she wouldn't talk. She kept evading, evading, evading. Then one day, she finally did talk to him. And she said, “You know - I've been living with this guilt for so long. I didn't want to say anything, but maybe if I come forward and tell the truth now, maybe some of my depression will go away.”
Now, I wasn't there, but Mr. Crossen, when he told us how she said it - and that he couldn't believe that someone really done something like this - you sent a man away for a life sentence because you lied.
Now, I'm not putting solely all the blame on her. She said that she felt like she was compelled to do so because the police made her fear that she was going to be thrown in jail and never see her kids again. That's what she thought. So, she went to trial, she went to hearing rather, in front of a judge - and she told the judge, “I did lie. I was granted complete immunity to do so. But, I need to come forward now because I know what I've done is wrong.”
The judge said – “Do you realize that you can possibly be brought up on perjury charges for what you've done?” And she said, “I understand, but I have to fix this.”
Judge goes out - We're thinking okay, we're in a good spot. We've got it, he's coming home, this is it! Denied. Denied? How can that be denied?
So where do we go from here? You know, we said okay, well, we're gonna keep plugging away, plugging away, plugging away, plugging away. But still no avail, because my brother's still in jail today.
Chester Hollman: You know, I spent my life savings, me and my wife,trying to get my son his freedom. Everything we had, even twice, second-mortgaging my home. But the money is not really something you can dwell on because life is what we live for. My son's life, 26 years taken from him. The prime of his life and I think about that deal, five years and out. I think about that, it haunts me.
It really haunts me. My son could have been home. But, I have to stand by what's right. My dad, my mom raised us…brothers and my sister in the church. Always telling us, do the right thing. That's all we have to live by in life. My son would be out here if he was out after lying for somebody, with that tag over his head, being an accomplice to a murder. So it's best he stays where he is and confess his innocence until he comes home.
Jamie J: Going through the law enforcement system is never easy, even if the case is not as drastic and heart breaking as those with long jail sentences for alleged serious crimes. A lot has been said about the enormous impact on individuals, families, and society, in general, of the prison system. Doing time is not easy on anyone. This reminds me of a bittersweet story shared by Jarrod Little at a First Person Arts slam, about having to take on the responsibilities of an adult beyond his years.
Jarrod Little: So, my mom has been to jail three times. You know, that's my icebreaker. You know it makes me feel like Tupac a little bit. I mean, my mom didn't go to jail for having a meth lab or murder or like treason, my mom just liked to drink and she had a lot of DUIs, like a scroll of DUIs that fell to the floor. So three times in my life my mom went to jail and the first time I was five, I didn't really know why we were on the run from the law, they took her away and then I was seventeen going on eighteen and she went to jail and she left me with my siblings and I had to work, I became an adult at a very early age which, you know, I was like more than up to the task to do that and you know I felt alive, you know, being an adult. And then the third time she went to jail I was twenty years old. And the third time I went to jail she had left me, you know, in debt about two grand back rent, which I had no idea about that and I had a week to pay it. Which was pretty, you know, tough for me being a twenty-year-old man or, yeah I'll call myself a man right there.
So I went to the renting agency and I took my brother and sister along with me and I told them, I was like, "Alright guys, we're going to need cute and poverty stricken. We have the poverty-stricken thing got down, so guys I'm going to need all that cuteness out of you." Which worked, you know, we got two weeks, I had two weeks to raise about, I would say around 1400 dollars, I had 600 dollars saved.
So those two weeks I worked my ass off, I worked every day as much as I could, you know, and the thing was I had great friends that I owe a lot to that helped me keep my mind off of this because it was, it was stressful, but no it would always come back to that and I worked myself sick. And I got to a point where I couldn't really work anymore so I took a few days off and it ended up being the day before the money was due and I still owed about 400 dollars and I, I felt s***ty, I felt that I let them down, and it was tough on me and that night I had friends throwing a party and I knew at this party that they knew what I was going through and I knew everyone was going to throw me a little bit of money and, and I was very grateful for it and I was walking through the party and everyone had smiles on their face and that was the first night that I was introduced to Jell-o shots and I was like whoa, there's alcohol in these?
Which I'm almost like just drinking myself into oblivion, drinking myself to death, because I felt like I let them down, I just drank so many Jell-o shots that if you had taken my blood alcohol content they would've been like, that's gelatin, that's all gelatin in that man's blood.
And I got to that point and they all take me into the living room and, you know, they're all sitting on the couch, the love seat, the ottoman, Indian style on the floor, and they pull me, and my friend Ramsey, he's a great guy, he says, "Jarrod, like, we know how hard you've been working and we obviously see how drunk you are right now, but we have something for you." So they hand me an envelope, the envelope is thick, and I'm really drunk, and I say "And the winner is!" And I rip open the envelope, and money flutters everywhere. And it rains down, and this is before making it rain was really cool, so I'm an innovator, in a sense.
And it rains down, I just see all their smiling faces, like, behind the money, and I just was like, wow, this is awesome, but this is probably enough, you know? And everybody's laughing, and I'm laughing, and we gather up the money and they say "Jarrod this is 500 dollars" and I say "Holy s***! Thank you, I would talk anymore than I am now, but, like, I'm really drunk and I don't want to start crying, but this is like one of the greatest moments of my life." And it was one of the best moments of my life, because I still like remember everybody's, like, smiling faces, like behind that money, and I just like, I look back on it and you know, I don't want to sound cliché, but you know, like, "It's A Wonderful Life" it tells you, you know, a man could like never be a failure if he has friends, you know, and that's why it's like, you need to, people in your life are important and you need to treat them like they're important and they'll always be there for you.
Thank you, guys, I'm Jarrod Little, thank you.
Jamie J: Jarrod Little lives in Philadelphia, where he works in the restaurant industry, and performs stand up comedy.
You’re listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts, where live storytelling and conversation connect you to each other— and the world. I’m your host Jamie J. Today we are talking about “Doing Time” - but this time we speak with an attorney, federal public defender Arianna Freeman. She’s also a board member of First Person Arts.
Jamie J: Arianna, you have a very specific and important job, the outcome of which literally will change someone’s life. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do?
Arianna Freeman: Absolutely. My job specifically is to work on post conviction cases. So I’m working on behalf of people who are incarcerated in state prison or in federal prison and who are seeking the review of their convictions or sentences. They’re challenging that their conviction or their sentence was unconstitutional and that something went amiss in their case.
Jamie J: When did you decide this was what you wanted to do for a living?
Arianna Freeman: You know, probably during law school. I didn’t know about this type of work until I was in law school. I actually had an internship at the office that is now my office, and I worked in the capital habeas unit on death penalty cases, and I just found passionate, wonderful attorneys who were dealing with a really complex area of law and some really complex individuals who were sentenced to death, and all of the legal issues and human issues involved were just so compelling that I came back a few years later.
Jamie J: So what was the case that convinced you that the work you were doing was important?
Arianna Freeman: I don’t know that I needed any one particular case to convince me. Every client that I have met has reinforced the importance of this work. Particularly when I was working on capital cases. Part of the job of a post conviction attorney or a habeas lawyer in a capital case is to really tell the client’s life story, to tell the court the things that the jury didn’t hear that might have saved his life many years earlier, and so in getting to know these individuals who have been convicted often times of horrific crimes, and getting to know all of the things that make them very vulnerable humans. There was one client very close to execution, but was not executed, about five years ago; it was the middle of 2012. That was incredibly emotionally powerful, and he recently, only in 2017 was taken off death row after years of litigation.
Jamie J: So, there’s a saying that the prisons are full of innocent men. But the truth is that everyone isn’t innocent. How do you choose which cases to take on, and also how do you prove innocence?
Arianna Freeman: I don’t choose what cases to take on, for the most part the court makes that decision. Even when someone has been sentenced to die in prison, meaning to serve his or her natural life in prison, without the opportunity of ever getting out…there is no right to a habeas lawyer. So the court appoints my office to some non-capital habeas cases, and not others, based on a variety of circumstances, but ultimately when the case comes to me, there is not always an innocence claim, in fact most often there is not. The issues that are before the court in habeas corpus are the constitutionality of the conviction and the sentence. Was this person convicted in a way that is consistent with our constitution and our values as a society? So those are the issues I take on regardless of factual innocence.
Jamie J: You talk a lot about persons being sentenced in a constitutional way, or in a way that respects the constitution. Is that always clear cut? Is it, you know, this is the way it is, and that’s the way it has to be, or is it something that’s interpreted?
Arianna Freeman: There is really very little in the law that is clean cut, and particularly constitutional law and federal statutes. There is vigorous debate over many of these issues. Often times I am 100% convinced that I am right about how the law should be interpreted, and the prosecutors on the other side have the same level of confidence in their view. And we rely on the courts to resolve these disputes. And often times, we file appeals, and we try to go up to the US Supreme Court, and even then, there’s vigorous debate, even among the justices, so it is never simple.
Jamie J: Let’s talk about equities…your clients…do you find that ethnically, racially, age-wise, that they are evenly spread?
Arianna Freeman: Well I work in a public defender office, and so the people that we represent are indigents; they cannot afford attorneys. And there is a very large numbers of people of low socio-economic status that are charged and convicted of crimes in Philadelphia and beyond. I think there is a very high number of minorities who are involved in the criminal justice system here. Both represented by my office and by other defense attorneys, and it is disproportionate to the numbers in our community in the population at large.
Jamie J: The United States incarcerates the largest number of its citizens, per capita, than any other country in the world. How do you respond to that?
Arianna Freeman: I respond with regret and sadness…I wonder if there are conditions that we are incarcerating people for that are really health conditions. For instance, we’re looking at the opioid epidemic as a health crisis. But for many years we fought a war on drugs that involved incarcerating people who were addicts. So that’s just one example of the ways in which I wish our society would treat mental health conditions, addiction, and many other things as health crises and intervene in ways that help our citizens more than incarceration ever could.
Jamie J: You know, we all start off wide-eyed dreamers. Have your ideals changed at all, your ideas about the world, about justice…have they changed at all as a result of your work?
Arianna Freeman: I think having worked now as a public defender for over 8 years, I’ve seen a lot of disappointments. I’ve seen a lot of ways in which I think my clients would have been much better served if they had more resources. If they were from families that were more established in our community, and if they could have marshaled some more legal expertise, or sometimes if they could have hired an attorney, although we do have really fantastic public defenders, sometimes money does make a difference. And that makes me very sad, but it also makes me as a public defender inspired to provide the best representation possible. And I’m proud of my office and in particular the trial lawyers in my office who are appointed to represent individuals who are indigent who are being charged with federal crimes and they’re coming up against the resources of the United States government. And we provide fantastic representation for these individuals despite their indigent status.
Jamie J: So Arianna who would you say is the most important or influential person in your work life?
Arianna Freeman: I get my inspiration at work from my clients, so not any one more than the others…but really from hearing their gratitude at someone paying attention to their case, advocating for them, for going to see them, to talk through issues…that keeps me going, because I know that many people who have been incarcerated for years, like the men and women I represent, don’t have anyone to turn to, and if I can give them some of my time and attention, and expertise in the law, I feel their gratitude and I’m humbled and thankful for it.
Jamie J: What was your most heartbreaking loss?
Arianna Freeman: A recent loss that I had was a case where my client, I firmly believe, was actually innocent of his offence of conviction, and we could not convince the courts that that was true, and so he was not able to have his conviction overturned, although I believe in my heart of hearts and quite a bit of evidence showed that he did not commit the crime.
Jamie J: Have you ever felt like giving up?
Arianna Freeman: I have not. I don’t think it’s in my nature to give up.
Jamie J: What are you proudest of?
Arianna Freeman: I am proudest of my ability to work through really complex areas of law, and to tell the stories of my client. To really take a human and try to explain what’s important about him as a person or about his case to the court in a way that makes them understand why this individual is important.
Jamie J: Arianna, what would you say to a listener that might be thinking “Everyone that’s in jail belongs there?”
Arianna Freeman: That’s a great question. I would ask them to give me an hour so that I can show them some documents and tell them some stories about some of my clients. And whether those stories are about my innocent clients who should not be in prison at all and were wrongfully convicted, or if those stories are about the differences between what a client with means may have gotten as a result of an offence, and the client without means would have gotten. I think that someone would at least have pause in thinking that everyone in prison belongs there. I also would ask that person to visit a prison, and visit some individuals who have been incarcerated for a long time, and even if that particular inmate did commit a crime that deserves punishment, take a look and see if that person has changed since he got into prison and if it’s possible for him to redeem himself. You know, there are some offences in Pennsylvania where if you’re convicted, and specifically homicide offenses, if you’re convicted you’ll be incarcerated for the rest of your life, and a lot can change over a lifetime. Especially when young men and women have been convicted of offences that they committed in their teens or even in their twenties, you go in and meet these men and women who are in their fifties now…I think we can take a fresh look and we can see that they’re different from the person who committed the offence earlier, and I wish that we could take a second look at these individuals. I would like people to think back on their lives, and think about the worst thing they ever did, and ask if they would like to be defined by that one thing, and if the answer is no, then try to take that approach to thinking about other people, including people who are incarcerated.
Jamie J: I’m Jamie J, your host for Commonspace, here in the studio with Arianna Freeman, Esquire…Arianna thank you so much for not only being here with us at Commonspace, but for what you do every day.
Arianna Freeman: Thank you Jamie.
Jamie J: Glad to have you.
Jamie J: You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Check us out online at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher…
Our Commonspace team includes Executive Producer and co-writer Elisabeth Perez Luna, Mike Villers, Producer, Associate Producers Ali L’Esperance and Jen Cleary. Dan Gasiesky and Tenesha Ford from First Person Arts, and Archivist Neil Bardhan. Our Engineer was Adam Staniszewski, and our theme music is by SUBGLO. Some of the other music you heard on this show is part of WHYY’s Local Music Project. You can get to know the artists and find links to their work at whyy.org/localmusic. Again that’s whyy – dot ‑- org – forward slash – local music.
But don’t forget, this is Commonspace.
I’m your host Jamie J…Thanks for listening.