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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Day of Innocence ‘life-changing’

Published: March 24, 2006
Section: News

The Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism, spearheaded by Florence Graves and Pamela Cytrynbaum (JOUR), hosted an entire afternoon of speakers and films in what was described as A Day of Innocence.

Over the course of the day, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-nominated Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, and real-life exonerated prisoner Dennis Maher spoke to stunned audiences in the Womens Studies Research Center and the Spingold Theatre about the perils of the criminal justice system and the death penalty, as well as the ever-present threat of wrongful conviction.

It was life-changing, said Marcie McPhee, the Assistant Director of Ethics. Ive been at Brandeis since 1988 This was the tops The event went half an hour into dinner time and they wouldnt leave. [It was] powerful stuff.

Maher, who was wrongfully imprisoned in a Massachusetts prison for 19 years on three rape charges, spoke softly after the end of the Jessica Sanders documentary After Innocence. He spoke to a packed audience about his life, both before and after his incarceration.

There are things in prisons that need to be changed, Maher said. And we need people on the outside to fight to make that change. Maher proceeded to tell his story of the mistaken eyewitnesses, sleeping defense lawyers, and misled jury that led to his wrongful conviction. In 1983, Maher, despite being a sergeant in the United States Army, was charged with two Lowell rapes, based solely on the description of the assailant wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt. Despite a seemingly successful courtroom hearing where a victim identified another man as her assailant, Maher was charged with the crimes, and sentenced to 20 – 30 years in prison. After Mahers picture ran on the news, a third victim accused him of rape, extending Mahers sentence to life in prison.

I hold nothing against them, said Maher, of his accusers. They have horrors of their own to deal with. Maher added that when the judge asked him if he had any final statements, he replied, Your Honor, if you call this justice, I think you and the whole judicial system are a crock of shit.

Maher was released less than three years ago after a grueling struggle by the New England Innocence Project to obtain DNA evidence, which finally ended when a law school student coaxed someone at the police station to find the semen samples during his lunch break. I want to know, but I dont want to know, said Maher, stating that this act of kindness could have been the end of this persons career.
My name has not been clearedthe [Attorney Generals] office doesnt know how to do it because its never been done before, said Maher.

Since his exoneration and release in 2003, Maher has tried to make up for nearly 20 years of lost timehe has since gotten married, begun working as a diesel mechanic on trash trucks at Waste Management, and recently had two children: Joshua, 14 months old, and Alizanamed after the lawyer who worked ceaselessly on Mahers casesix weeks old. Life is good, Maher said. I dont worry about the small things in life anymore I lost 19 years of my life. I dont need to waste any more time.

Later that evening, in Spingold, Prejean, spoke to a house of more than 450 people about the social inequities behind the death penalty. Capital punishment is those who dont have the capital, get the punishment, Prejean said. The little Katrinastheres more than one way to drown, the New Orleans native added.
Poverty drowns.

Prejean, 66, also talked about her progression from working with schoolchildren at the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans to being a spiritual advisor to both Death Row inmates and the families of victims. I had never written to anyone whose address was Death Row, Prejean recalled. I didnt know it was going to chance my whole blooming life! Prejean stated that ignorance was what has kept the death penalty in our criminal justice system. Were removed from them, we dont see itand we have other people to do our killing for us.

Prejean berated figures like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for the growing religious fundamentalism in politics, calling it the basis of perpetuating the inequities in the legal systemsuch as finding inebriated or intoxicated lawyers adequate counciland keeping the death penalty operational. Boy, we need to look at our Constitution, and see whats happening We have two major problems that we need to address: we have fundamentalists in the approach to religion, and the Constitution that is driving the politics of this country, Prejean said. Politics drives the death penalty [but] we need to be a society that heals, not just a place that throws people behind bars and punishes.

Following on the theme of the daywrongful convictionPrejean railed on the inherent fallibility of the death penalty. If were going to be judge and jury, dont you think we better have an absolute system of finding out the truth? Prejean told a brief story about the family of a victim who felt pressured to push for the death penalty, as though not pushing for lethal injection would be disrespectful to their murdered child. The death penalty taints everybody it touches, Prejean said to an awestruck audience. Trust me, Im a nun.

We cant be neutralwe got to catch on fire, said Prejean to the crowd, who soon thereafter drowned her out with applause. We got to do something!