I recently watched Ken Burns' documentary on the Central Park Five, the unfortunate story of five youths of color in New York who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in the late 1980s. In 2002, the actual rapist confessed to the crime and the boys, now men, were finally exonerated. In 2014, a federal judge approved a $41 million settlement in which each defendant received roughly $1 million for every year he was wrongly imprisoned.
It's tough to see how money could even begin to right a wrong like this, but one of the five—the oldest, Korey Wise—is using some of his money to help others who find themselves in his shoes. Wise recently pledged $190,000 to support the Innocence Project at the University of Colorado Law School.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy outfit, was founded to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. According to the Innocence Project's website, "More than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row." These individuals serve an average of 14 years in prison before exoneration and release. Wise, by the way, was incarcerated for over 13 years and was 16 years old at the start of his ordeal.
The Colorado chapter of the Innocence Project was established in 2001. Wise's gift will rename the chapter the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law and the funds will support the hiring of a full-time program director and provide financial support for the program's work. The chapter receives 25 letters a week from those seeking help with appeals, and has around 200 applications in review.
As Colorado Law Clinical Professor Ann England puts it, “We don’t have the perfect legal system. We know innocent people get convicted, so that creates an obligation to figure out who among us have been wronged. Korey’s gift gives students a face and a name to what it means to be wrongly convicted, and the Innocence Project at Colorado Law is an important educational tool that allows our students to work on real investigations of cases.”
In New York City, the Central Park Five case has always loomed, and as a person of color, the case served as one of my first lessons that the criminal justice system was not infallible. The recent case of Kalief Browder, an innocent youth who found himself in limbo for three years waiting for a simple trial, and his ultimate suicide, echoes that lesson. What strikes me about Wise's gift, then, is his apparent commitment to reforming the same system that so wronged him.