Amid the Trump administration’s ongoing crusade against criminal justice reform efforts, a Black-owned media corporation, with its release of an uplifting, socially conscious docuseries, aims to highlight the plight, and eventual triumph, of Black men and women wrongfully convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.
This week, TV One aired the first installment of “Evidence of Innocence,” a four-part program chronicling the experiences of those who, after prosecution, lengthy prison stints, and convoluted appeals processes, cleared their names of criminal wrongdoing and reunited with their families.
On this show, the quartet of innocent people reflects on their experiences while making sense of their newfound freedom.
“The one thing about this show that’s different from others is that, while justice is predicated as locking up people, we define justice as a search for truth,” Benjamin Crump, notable civil rights lawyer and host of the TV One program, told The Informer during a private screening of “Evidence of Innocence” Thursday at the Internet & Television Association (NCTA) headquarters in Northwest.
“This show will expose those who don’t give citizens due process and [respect] their constitutional rights under the law,” Crump added. “We’re going to expose this for America, so people can see that judges and police and deceiving and lying to get a notch on their belt and feed the prison industrial complex. That’s not the equal justice we want for all American citizens.”
A study conducted last year by the National Review of Exonerations found that Black people convicted of murder and sexual assault are more likely to later be found innocent of their crimes, in comparison to their white counterparts. Researchers also determined that Black people in these situations often waited disproportionately longer before the system cleared their name.
Since the turn of the century, lawmakers have tried shaping policy to lessen the impact of wrongful convictions, including a moratorium on the death penalty, as implemented in Illinois by then-Gov. George Ryan (R). Efforts continued this year with the approval of a measure in California that would open the records of police officers found guilty of planting evidence, among other abuses of power. For the wrongfully convicted, Kansas recently passed a law securing health care, housing, and an annual amount of $65,000 for every year spent behind bars.
Though he didn’t face the death penalty, Mark Schand, a Connecticut husband and father of three, struggled to remain faithful that his situation, a life sentence in a maximum security facility for a murder he didn’t commit, would change for the better.
While speaking with Crump on the first episode of “Evidence of Innocence,” Schand, now a free man for nearly four years, recounted his nearly 30-year ordeal, which included a wrongful conviction, severe prosecutorial misconduct, a denied appeal, a nearly fatal brain aneurysm, and his wife Mia’s unwavering love for and dedication to him through it all.
At the beginning of the nearly hourlong segment, Schand, bald and sporting thick black shades and a goatee, walked Crump through his initial arrest in 1986 and subsequent events, while the pair stood feet from where detectives crept up in a vehicle on Schand as he walked his dog, only to slam him against their car hood and put him in handcuffs minutes later. Other scenes in the episode placed Schand and Crump on the steps of the court building where some of the litigation took place, and at Schand’s current home, where he and Crump sat at an outdoor table and conversed as his grandchildren frolicked around a spacious backyard.
Peppered throughout this episode of “Evidence of Innocence” were detailed reenactments of the drug deal-turned-shooting that left an innocent female bystander dead, the Schands’ evolving relationship that culminated in prison nuptials, and efforts to secure Schand’s freedom by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based organization that assists in the vindication of the wrongfully convicted.
“It’s about the support system, the people who believe in you,” Rushion McDonald, executive producer of “Evidence of Innocence,” told The Informer during Thursday’s private screening at NCTA.
Throughout the evening, McDonald stressed that the docuseries shed light on an issue that untold numbers of Black people face.
“We worked hard to find real stories,” he said. “When you watch them, you can’t help but be moved. Despite the entire system blaming [the people featured], their families never accepted it. You had this young woman who stayed with this man for 30 years and never wavered. That’s the definition of ride-or-die!”
While most agreed on “Evidence of Innocence”‘s political and emotional significance, the next steps in tackling systems that wrongfully convict Black men and women inspired a spirited panel discussion immediately following the screening. TV One’s Roland Martin, a nationally syndicated award-winning journalist and columnist, guided a conversation that touched on the importance of down-ballot voting in choosing judges and answering the call for jury duty.
That evening, panelists included Crump, McDonald, TV One network executive Tia A. Smith, Chanta’ Parker of the Innocence Project, and Mike Fletcher, a senior writer with ESPN’s The Undefeated. On the subject of jury duty participation, a task that legal experts say ensures one’s peers are involved in the judicial process, Parker pushed back against assumptions that Black people avoid the process callously.
“There are barriers; the system presumes us guilty at every turn,” Parker, special counsel for New Initiatives at the Innocence Project said during the panel discussion.
“If you work for an hourly wage, you can’t take off for a day, or even weeks. When people come in for jury duty, the prosecutor is aggressively trying to get them off,” Parker added in reference to the jury selection process, where the prosecution and defense attempt to shape the demographics of the jury in their favor.
As a reminder about the prevalence of the issue of wrongful convictions, Kimaan Majid, a representative of a Newark, New Jersey-based internet magazine who attended the screening, shared his story of a three-year prison sentence in Virginia and lengthy parole process for a crime he said he didn’t commit. In the middle of the panel, Majid, who often commutes between New Jersey and D.C. for work, walked down the row of white leather seats and, on the main stage area, implored audience members to tackle the prison system at all angles.
“We should get more involved in the cases that got nothing to do with us to ensure the innocent remain innocent and free. There’s no exception,” Majid told The Informer at the close of last week’s screening. “More of us have to do jury duty and become more aware of the business of the penitentiary. This show gives a voice to people you don’t hear from and that’s why I appreciate it.”
The next three episodes of “Evidence of Innocence” involve a woman named as a prime suspect in her ex-girlfriend’s murder, a teenager sentenced to life in Texas, and a day care facility owner convicted in the death of an infant under her care. Crump and others involved in the production and marketing of the docuseries expressed confidence that viewers would empathize with those who told their story and advocate for systemic changes.
“The great part about this show is that it becomes part of the larger conversation,” Jessica Lane, TV One’s director of digital and social media, told The Informer. “We know about African-American struggles and conflicts. This is one more thread of the stories, and these end up being happy stories and stories of redemption. It’s also very critical of what goes on after you’re arrested, become a person of interest, and swept up in the system.”