This essay was originally published by the California Innocence Project on its blog here.
Last Saturday night, I jumped on the Metro Red Line in North Hollywood to make my way down to the CIP vigil at Los Angeles City Hall the purpose of which was to urge Governor Jerry Brown to grant clemency to the California 12. I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went it alone because I thought it important to be there in both body and spirit for the families whose sons and daughters have been rotting away in prison for far too many years. It’s easy to be lazy about folks like the California 12 when you have no connection to them other than through newspaper articles, online blogs, media reports, and other abstract sources. That apathy is even more pronounced during the holiday season when the traditional focus is on one’s own family and friends. But I’d been following the story of the California 12, and was encouraged by CIP’s recent success in gaining freedom for Michael Hanline, so I mustered up the energy and headed for downtown.
When I arrived at City Hall about thirty minutes early, there were a bunch of folks milling about in anticipation of the event to come. Half of these folks were obviously associated as students or otherwise with CIP and were clustered about in groups of blue and yellow XONR8 t-shirts idly chit-chatting with one another. The rest of the folks appeared to be primarily the family and friends of the California 12. They were easily identifiable by the over-sized photographs, posters, and banners that they had brought to the vigil. There were the parents of Kimberly Long. The family of Dolores Macias. The family of Quintin Morris. The spouse and supporters of Alan Gimenez. The family and friends of Guy Miles. They were all there to support their wrongfully incarcerated loved ones. Looking around, I realized that I knew absolutely no one. So I stood there in the faint glow of City Hall’s lights waiting for the festivities to begin while LAPD helicopters and muni buses competed for obnoxious noise supremacy.
Then an energetic and intense guy with a clean-shaven head and steely eyes walked in front of me and suddenly stopped. I had observed this guy making the rounds and mingling with all the groups clad in XONR8 t-shirts since I arrived, so I figured he was a CIP mucky-muck who was in charge of insuring the event went off smoothly. He offered his hand in greeting and I reciprocated. As I did, he said something entirely unexpected. Instead of introducing himself, he asked if I was an exoneree. Instinctively and immediately I chuckled out loud at the notion and then demurred, telling him that I was just some guy who supported the cause. Although I wasn’t thinking it at the time, subconsciously I must have found the idea of being an exoneree so patently preposterous that I actually laughed out loud. Me, an exoneree? I don’t even fit the profile!
Almost immediately, however, my conscious self understood what my subconscious self had just done but it was too late. The bald-headed fellow understood too, but he was too much a gentleman to call me on it. So he offered some words of encouragement about future exonerations, thanked me for showing up, and then slipped away.
Later that evening, as Justin Brooks was introducing the families of the California 12 as well as some notable dignitaries, I realized the severity of my gaffe. For I learned then that the closely-shorn fellow whom I had probably insulted earlier in the evening was none other than Nick Yarris. As you probably know, Nick Yarris is himself an exoneree who was wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated for a brutal rape and murder committed in Pennsylvania in December of 1981.
It was a moment of utter embarrassment. I had dismissively, although unconsciously, laughed in the face of a guy who was compelled to sacrifice 20+ years of his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. But it was also a moment of profound enlightenment. For at that moment, the scales fell from my eyes, and I came to the realization that what happened to Nick Yarris and Michael Hanline and Rodney McNeal and Kiera Newsome and Ed Contreras could very easily happen to me. It could happen to any of us. I had often preached the gospel of “there but for the grace of God go I,” but that was obviously something that I just said. Mere window dressing to impress and present myself as concerned and understanding to the outside world. But as I stood there looking around at the photographs of the California 12 and listening to their stories as told by their supporters, reality, conjured up by Nick Yarris, stepped up and slapped me hard. No matter how comfortably convinced I had been that wrongful convictions are something that only happens to abstract “others,” anyone regardless of race, gender, or economic status can conceivably end up as fodder for the criminal justice meat grinder. Injustice does not discriminate. Even against me.
So that was my moment of clarity as I stood on the darkened south lawn of Los Angles City Hall last Saturday evening. Although he has hopefully forgotten the encounter, I suppose I owe Nick Yarris an apology for being such a Neanderthal. But I also owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to see what was right in front of me but was otherwise invisible. Because of my humiliating encounter with Nick, I now have a greater understanding and appreciation of the really important, in-the-trenches work that the good folks at CIP do on a daily basis. I also more deeply feel the despair and the urgency of the families who seek the release of their unjustly imprisoned loved ones. In a country that holds itself out to the rest of the world as a beacon of fairness and justice, the fact that the California 12 are still sitting behind bars is an egregious perversion of the worst kind.