Innocence Project’s Uplifting Moments from 2023
The Innocence Project team helped exonerate nine people in 2023, from Hilo, Hawaii to Syracuse, New York.
The Innocence Project team helped exonerate nine people in 2023, from Hilo, Hawaii to Syracuse, New York. Together, the nine clients exonerated this year persevered through a combined time of 212 years in prison and are finally home for the holidays to make up for decades of lost time with their loved ones.
From exoneree Ian Schweitzer diving into the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 25 years to advocates coming together to participate in a rally urging New York Governor Kathy Hochul to sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, we’ve made a list of some of the most uplifting moments of the year.
1. Ian Schweitzer jumps into the ocean for the first time in 25 years.
“Being born and raised in Hawaii, I’ve always been an ocean person,” Ian Schweitzer said. With the help of the Innocence Project and Hawaii Innocence Project, Mr. Schweitzer was exonerated on Jan. 24 in Hilo, Hawaii and celebrated by jumping into the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 25 years. Since then, Mr. Schweitzer, an avid fisherman, has participated in multiple fishing competitions.
In 2000, Mr. Schweitzer and his brother Shawn, who was represented by the California Innocence Project, were wrongly convicted of a 1991 rape and murder based on unreliable jailhouse informant testimony — despite DNA results excluding them from the rape kit. Shawn was exonerated on Oct. 23, months after his brother’s exoneration.
2. Norberto Peets shares his love for basketball.
“In Sing Sing Prison, I played basketball all day, and it helped me stay in good shape, but, in that moment when I was playing basketball, it took a lot of stress away from me,” said Mr. Peets, who was exonerated in May 2023. “That was the only time I felt like I was a little free and not so in my mind about all the stuff I was dealing with.”
Mr. Peets was wrongly convicted of a 1996 shooting in New York after a police officer identified him as the gunman. He was exonerated after strong evidence of an alternate suspect, medical reinvestigation, and post-conviction DNA testing confirmed his innocence. Since his release, Mr. Peets has moved into his own home and reconnected with his daughter and son, who were young children at the time of his wrongful conviction.
3. Darrill Henry never gave up even under the threat of execution.
“I can finally breathe,” said Darrill Henry after his exoneration hearing on Jan. 20 in New Orleans. “I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know when.”
Nearly three years after a Louisiana judge overturned Mr. Henry’s first-degree murder conviction based on new exculpatory DNA evidence, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against him. Mr. Henry was released on bail in 2020 but had to wear an ankle monitor for three years, until his charges were finally dismissed in January.
“This day is a long time coming for Darrill Henry,” said Vanessa Potkin, Mr. Henry’s attorney and the Innocence Project’s director of special litigation. “The State sought the death penalty. For a decade, Mr. Henry was locked away in pre-trial detention facing trial and living under the threat of being convicted and potentially executed for a crime he did not commit. He spent another eight years serving out a life sentence at Angola, one of the harshest prisons in the country. His ordeal began when he was 29, and so much was taken from him, including the ability to raise his two children and to properly grieve the death of his mother and other close family members who died over the 18 years while he was wrongfully incarcerated.”
4. Innocence Project honors Yusef Salaam’s mother Sharonne Salaam.
Innocence Project executive director Christina Swarns and Board Member Yusef Salaam, presented Sharonne Salaam, a life-long prison and human rights advocate and co-founder of Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated, with the Award for Freedom & Justice.
“Although public opinion was against me, my mother rose above it, stayed by my side, and fiercely advocated for my innocence,” Mr. Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five and recently elected to New York City Council, said about his mother.
“For the 12 years I was wrongly convicted, she made sure that my name would not be forgotten, that I wasn’t just another statistic caught in a criminal legal system that too often damages members of my community, and that the system itself would one day atone for the injustice I was suffering,” he added.
Since the exoneration of Mr. Salaam in 2011, Ms. Salaam has advocated across New York for compensation, education, and other support for wrongly imprisoned people so they can rebuild their lives upon release. “In essence, she is my modern-day Harriet Tubman,” Mr. Salaam added.
5. Tyrone Day’s family overflowed a Dallas courtroom during his exoneration.
On May 24, about 130 of Tyrone Day’s friends, family and members of the exonerated community in Texas packed a Dallas courtroom to witness his exoneration. Mr. Day, who has seven siblings and a close-knit team that works alongside him at Restorative Farms, was in good company with dozens of people wearing t-shirts that supported him and joyously danced as he finally was vindicated of a false sexual assault conviction that cost him 26 years in prison.
“Today, I am focused on my family and my passion for sustainable farming,” Mr. Day said.
“I was born and raised in South Dallas, and the opportunity to bring fresh produce here, where it’s scarce, and train the next generation of farmers is so meaningful to me.”
6. Rosa Jimenez’s granddaughter was born during her exoneration.
On Aug. 7, Rosa Jimenez was officially exonerated of a crime that never occurred following a 20-year fight for justice, while her daughter gave birth to her first child Alexia.
”I want to have a long, healthy life with my family, who I waited so long to be with again,” Ms. Jimenez said. “I want to see my grandchildren grow up.”
Ms. Jimenez, who always maintained her innocence, was convicted of murder in 2005, after a 21-month-old child she was babysitting choked on paper towels and suffered a severe brain injury due to oxygen deprivation. He passed away three months later.
Ms. Jimenez’s conviction was vacated after leading pediatric airway experts affirmed the death was a tragic accident and not murder. This year, a Texas court dismissed her 2003 murder charges based on the new medical evidence establishing her innocence.
Following her exoneration, Ms. Jimenez was able to meet her granddaughter Alexia and celebrate with her children and wife. Ms. Jimenez, who has end-stage kidney disease she developed during her wrongful imprisonment, is now looking for a kidney donor to save her life and help with medical expenses.
7. Carlton Lewis danced to DJ Khaled and Rihanna in the prison parking lot after being freed.
On Aug. 10, Carlton Lewis was exonerated in Syracuse, New York, more than three decades after he was wrongly convicted and incarcerated for second-degree murder in 1992.
As Mr. Lewis’ legal team walked him out of the prison, he blasted DJ Khaled and SZA’s “Just Us” and Rihanna’s “Work” in the parking lot before eating a massive fish sandwich.
“I’ve known all along I’m innocent, but it feels good to finally have the court acknowledge it, to finally have no more lies hanging over my head,” Mr. Lewis said.
8. Leonard Mack’s case made history as the longest wrongful conviction overturned by DNA.
Leonard Mack, a Vietnam War veteran, spent 7.5 years in prison and waited 47 years for the court to clear his name in the rape and sexual assault of a teenaged girl, which he did not commit. He was just 23 years old when he was convicted and turned 72 on the day he was exonerated. This is the longest known wrongful conviction case overturned by DNA in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Project’s records.
“Today is my birthday; I couldn’t think of a better gift,” said Mr. Mack, whose exoneration hearing brought him and even the judge to tears.
“[Presiding over this case] has been the highlight of my career,” said Judge Anne Minihan, who then asked Mr. Mack if she could hug him, walked over to embrace him, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
9. “I feel like a firecracker, a whole fourth of July,” Perry Lott said.
On Oct. 10, Perry Lott was exonerated by DNA after 35 years of wrongful conviction in Oklahoma, telling TikTok fans that he “feels like a firecracker, a whole fourth of July.”
Mr. Lott’s exoneration came after overcoming 30 years in prison for a 1987 rape and burglary. There was a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and he did not match the physical description of the perpetrator.
Post-conviction DNA testing performed in 2014 from the survivor’s rape kit further proved Mr. Lott did not commit this crime. The State’s case rested entirely on the survivors’ identification of Mr. Lott, which was based on a suggestive police lineup.