Public Advocacy Discussion at the 2013 Innocence Network Conference

John Hardin, Steve Braga, Lonnie Soury
John Hardin, Steve Braga, Lonnie Soury

Last weekend I attended the 2013 Innocence Network conference in Charlotte, NC. I was there mostly to learn from other people, but my friends Lonnie Soury, Steve Braga and I were asked to lead the breakout session The Role of Legal, Investigative, and Public Advocacy Efforts in High Profile Wrongful Conviction Cases.

The role of public advocacy efforts in wrongful conviction cases has become a hot topic in the innocence world. Defense attorneys are understandably cautious about sensitive legal information being released, unnecessary agitation of prosecutors and judges, and about their client or their client’s public advocates making statements that might be used to incriminate their clients in a future retrial. That caution has led to an outright refusal amongst the majority of defense attorneys to work with public advocacy professionals or volunteers on post-conviction innocence cases.

We at Proclaim Justice believe there are cases where a public advocacy campaign may not be appropriate. Also, we strongly believe no information about a case should be released by a public advocate over the objection of the legal counsel. But more and more, attorneys and investigators are seeing the value in these public campaigns.

Case in point is Steve Braga. Steve is a highly respected and renowned lawyer whose professional accomplishments and recognitions are too many to list here, so he certainly brings credibility to the subject. He opened our discussion by stating that most of his career he was your “standard criminal defense attorney who believed strongly in the words ‘no comment.'” However, while working on the Marty Tankleff case, he began to see the value in public advocacy. Led by Lonnie, media efforts resulted in the public becoming engaged and demanding justice, legal scholars and experts submitting briefs and other legal assistance, and, most importantly, new and relevant leads being generated. The concerted effort of Marty’s legal, public advocacy, and investigative teams finally led to his release after spending almost eighteen years in prison.

We used many of those same public advocacy efforts on behalf of the West Memphis 3. After many years of critical public awareness being raised outside Arkansas—without which the WM3 would have been footnotes in the AR criminal justice system—we formed Arkansas Take Action to advocate from within the state as well. A tip line was set up and promoted, resulting in new relevant leads being developed. We began a very deliberate grassroots campaign, educating faith, business, political and community leaders who had shown no interest in the case to that point. We also ran an effective media and communications campaign, making sure we developed accurate messaging and remained on point. In short, we not only changed the climate to where it was merely palatable for the state to release the WM3, but where the state came to believe it was in its best interest to do so.

Of course both cases took the efforts of untold people over the course of many years, but without those public advocacy efforts it’s probable that all four of these victims of wrongful conviction would still be behind bars, or worse in the case of Damien Echols. The mechanics of each of those facets to the legal, public advocacy, and investigative efforts in both cases are much more complicated than discussed in this post and describing in more detail how to carry these things out from a public advocacy position will be an ongoing topic here on the blog. For now I was glad to see a high level of interest in the subject amongst conference attendees and I was happy to be a part of the discussion there.