Archie Williams auditioned for America’s Got Talent by singing Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. Before singing the song, he shared that he was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life without parole. After 24 years of being incarcerated, he was released because he was convicted of a crime that he did not commit.
One of the scariest things as a family member in today’s world is getting a phone call from someone you love saying that they were arrested. What is even scarier is getting that call when you know that they are innocent of the accusations. It is not difficult to get accused of something it is extremely difficult to prove actual innocence. In some cases, all it takes is the accusation for life as we know it to be forever changed.
It is easy for people to have the idea that someone would not lie about something as serious as a criminal accusation. It is easy to sit back and conclude that the accused is horrible, terrible, and deserves everything that is coming. However, regardless of if that person is innocent or guilty of the crime, they are still a person, and they matter to someone.
From the perspective of the accused and the accused’s friends and family, when an accusation is made, everything moves in fast-forward. Phone calls do not end. Friends and family pitch in to do their part to help get the accused out of jail and home. That is, if they have the financial ability to do so. Some innocent people do not have the financial resources, or are not prohibited from being released, so they must sit in jail awaiting their day in court.
If you are a lucky one that can get your loved one out, that in no way makes it go away. This is just the start of a long battle that seems endless. Once you get them home, you try your best to develop a plan. You schedule appointments with an attorney, and you wait. You wait for whatever shoe is about to drop.
Often, the filing of criminal accusations are followed by a rash of social media posts from law enforcement, media outlets and even friends and families of individuals making the accusations. The public certainly has a right to know what is going on in the community. However, when a loved one’s name, face, and only one side of the story is plastered all over social media, members of the community instinctively rush-to-judgment. The vocal ones do not hesitate to publicly share their opinions fueled by only half the story, in some of the most offensive and hurtful ways possible.
The presumption of innocence is quickly drowned out by the vociferous chorus of public opinion. In this country, a person is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. However, the commenting public does not hesitate to say things like the accused is not worthy of living, simply because of the nature of the accusations. As a family member reading those comments, it is aggravating, heartbreaking, and discouraging knowing that trial will likely occur within that very same community. It is a scary situation indeed! It is at that point, that as a family member, you recognize that life will never go back to how it was before the accusations were made, regardless of the outcome.
Family members and friends often wrestle with the desire to publicly defend their friend of family member. The temptation is great to share the truth, the other side of the story. You want to defend your loved one because it does not feel like anyone is defending them in the court of public opinion, or that anyone has their back. You want to freak out. However, you are cautioned by the lawyers to remain silent. You let it run its course hoping that the next scandal or story breaking in the days to come will overshadow your loved one’s plight.
As a close family member to the accused, you start trying to figure out what your new normal is. You feel selfish and feel as though you are taking a situation and making it about how you are feeling and how it is affecting you. You feel that you cannot talk about it because it upsets the people you love, but you yourself are about to explode. You try to keep the conversation as light and happy as possible, but at some point, the hard conversations must be had. You think of all the other people in your family that are affected by the same situation and pray that they are all doing okay. You are bogged down with the weight of the world, your world that could shatter in an instant.
Waiting, that is all that is left to do. You wait. Each time you think the end is insight, it moves further and further away. You wait for the depositions, you wait for the pretrial conference, and you wait for the trial date. All you can do is wait. There is no comfort in waiting. There is no comfort that this could turn out the way we need it to, the way that it should. Through the process, people will say to you; “If he is actually really innocent, he will be found that way.”
As you wait, your mind wanders. True-life examples of false convictions come to mind based upon the work of the Innocence Project and true-life stories such as Picking Cotton. This book tells the story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. Jennifer was raped at knife point in 1984 by a stranger that broke into her home. She was able to escape and eventually identified Ronald Cotton as the man that did it. After spending years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit he was released from prison as they found the true rapist. Jennifer Thompson has now Founded the Healing Justice Project which “aims to address the personal toll of wrongful convictions on all involved.
The work of organizations such as the Innocence Project has resulted in hundreds of falsely convicted, innocent individuals, being released from prison after being convicted of a crime they did not commit. HUNDREDS of people that were charged, convicted, and spend years in prison for something that they simply did not do. The idea that innocent people will not go to prison is simply not accurate.
While you are playing this waiting game, reading all these stories of people that were wrongfully convicted you try to keep hope. You must keep hope. Not only yourself but also for your loved one. The waiting game continues. You wait to see how the facts come out at trial. You wait to see what a jury say because there no way in hell your loved-one is going to consider a plea deal for something that they did not do. You sit through a trial holding it together. You refuse to let them break you. You sit with your family and friends, united against this nasty accusation. You wait for the judgment of 12 strangers. You wait. The minutes feel like hours. The hours feel like days. You wait for the phone call to say the jury has a verdict.
Not. F-ing. Guilty.
Instantaneous relief. Vindication. A rush of emotion overcomes everyone connected to the case. However, the emotion, the relief of escaping an unjust life of incarceration quickly begins to fade away. In its place creeps, frustration, anger, and flat-out rage. Now what?! What has previously been written cannot be erased. What is on the internet will forever remain. The last years of pure hell cannot be undone. Now what? Some may continue saying, “it doesn’t mean he did not do it. It just could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” The scarlet letter can never be fully erased. The accused’s personal and professional reputation remains forever tarnished.
GRL Law would challenge all those who read this post to stop and consider all sides to any given accusation before passing judgment. A “victim” is one who is harmed by the wrongful conduct of another. Doesn’t a person who is wrongfully accused of a criminal offense qualify as a “victim?” The true “victim” can be on either side of an accusation. Only the facts will tell. This is why a thorough factual investigation and vigorous defense is a necessity for all those accused of a crime. This is true regardless of what the public outcry that may arise from only a portion of the facts being known. Perspectives in life matter. Understanding and appreciating the perspective of the accused may not be instinctive, but it is just as important as any other individual involved in an accusation.