One Pandemic, Two Kinds of Freedoms: How the Innocence Project Has Changed the Landscape for Many Inmates During the Coronavirus

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The concept of “freedom” is a much-debated one these days.

While millions of people around the world are forced to confinement in their homes, there are those who have achieved a long-awaited freedom from the U.S. penal system to encounter a post-apocalyptic scenario on the streets.

That is the case of Paul Hildwin, Sheila Denton, Brandon Moon, and Demetrius Smith, four wrongly convicted former prisoners, who regained their freedom after the Innocence Project dedicated all its efforts to prove the flaws in the American judicial system.

Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project is an initiative that seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice, according to its website.

Through its legal, strategic, policy, social, and scientific departments, this project has given freedom back to dozens of people, a freedom that has been redefined by the coronavirus pandemic.

After 35 years in prison, Paul Hildwin who was also on death row for a crime he did not commit returned to a Florida plagued by the most aggressive virus in recent decades.

“What a time to come out of prison,” he told the Innocence Project. “But it’s better to be out here than in there. On Florida’s death row, it’s 14 cells on each wing and they are open. The nurses and doctors walk up and down the hallway. So once the virus is in there, it will spread like wildfire.”

At 60, and having survived cancer four times, his newfound freedom has a different flavor.

“The first thing I wanted to do was walk on grass and it was so wonderful. Some people might think it’s kind of corny, but for me it was a big thing. At first, I was just trying to balance stepping on something soft. There was no grass to walk on in prison, always hard concrete. The grass was nice and soft.”

In Georgia, Sheila Denton also experienced the beauty of her newfound freedom, when after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment based on bite mark evidence, her murder conviction was reversed.

But the story of vindication is also bittersweet.

Demetrius Smith, an exonerated Baltimore resident, has been advocating for improved exoneree compensation, without which surviving the COVID-19 pandemic is even more complicated.

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While the coronavirus could affect anyone, many incarcerated people have serious health conditions and live in close quarters in jails and prisons that leave them particularly vulnerable to its spread. These conditions also make it challenging to contain the virus.⁠ ⁠ A few reports of incarcerated people and employees in prisons being exposed to COVID-19 have already been reported. And experts say the situation could get much worse.⁠ ⁠ Read the @NewYorkerMag's interview with an epidemiologist at the link in bio to understand more about what prisons and jails can do to respond to the outbreak.⁠ ⁠ 📷: Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images⁠ ⁠ Detainees in a barrack holding area at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, California, on March 14, 2017.⁠ ⁠ #COVID_19 #Coronavirus #Justice #MassIncarceration #Health #COVID

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Without a fixed amount and unfair eligibility requirements, Smith and others helped by the project will go from relative safety in prisons to a system that insists on strangling them.

However, for Brandon Moon, who was exonerated 15 years ago in Texas, the pandemic has given him another job opportunity.

Thanks to his experience as a technician in the Army, Moon got a position at BioFire Diagnostics in Utah, where, paradoxically, he now works repairing equipment that uses DNA to test for viruses and diseases. The company is also working on a test to determine the presence of COVID-19 in patients.

“I think what got me the job was my knowledge of DNA, which is what I used to prove my innocence and get out of prison,” he said. “Because of this, I could understand what was going on in the test. I love that what I do uses DNA to help heal people and save lives.”

Thanks to The Innocence Files, a docuseries to be released on Netflix on April 15, many will be able to understand how U.S. legal institutions have long relied on faulty evidence like bite-mark analyses or the memory of witnesses, and which the Innocence Project has shown to be deep fractures in the system.