Last weekend, I flew to Michigan to deliver the keynote address at the first Women and Innocence Conference.  I expected to have an informative learning experience but found I was moved far more than I expected.

It started on my flight.  The thirty-year-old woman who sat next to me had moved to this country from Albania when she was fourteen years old.  She talked to me about the deprivation in her native lands–of the days on end when she went to the grocery store and there was nothing to purchase but spinach and leeks.  She spoke of the overwhelming sensory overload of her first time at a grocery store at this country.  It was too different and there were too many choices.

I did not know it as I spoke with her but her words would be echoed by the women exonorees at the conference.  After the deprivation of an incarcerated life, many of them experience a similar overload when they are finally released from prison for the crimes they did not commit.

There were many terrific presentations and I wouldn’t have missed a single one but the most powerful speaker was Joyce Ann Brown.  Joyce (left) is a woman of great dignity and poise. She was wrongfully convicted of an armed robbery and murder she did not commit.  With the help of Centurian Ministries, she was exonerated after serving nine years, five months and twenty-four days of hardship in prison.

Her electrifying ability as a speaker brought my Baptist upbringing to the forefront.  It was all I could do to stay in my seat and not jump up and shout “Amen, sister!” every time she made a new point.  I haven’t read her book, Justice Denied, yet but I am certainly looking forward to it.

There was so much about the weekend that I enjoyed.  I got the chance to visit with three professionals I got to know as I provided assistance in Julie Rea Harper’s case: Bill Clutter, investigator with the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and Karen Daniels and Judith Royal, attorneys with the Center for Wrongful Convictions.  I got to see Jim and Jane Rea, Julie’s parents, once again.

I met exonerated womenlike Tabitha Pollack whose stories broke my heart.  I listened to the heart-wrenching stories of the family members and friends of women still behind bars fighting for their innocence including Darlie Kee, the mother of Darlie Routier, who now sits on Death Row in Texas and the family of Raye Dawn Smith whose imprisonment in connection with the death of her daughter is a travesty of justice.  I mentioned her in my keynote address and will blog about her case in more detail in the near future.
The highlight for me was Julie Rea Harper.(photo on left:  Julie with her mother, Jane Rea ) Even though we played an important role in each others’ lives, Julie and I had never met before face-to-face.  To me, it felt like finding a lost sister.  I still get tears in my eyes thinking about that first moment.  After the conference we spent some additional time getting to know each other.  Sitting, chatting and sipping tea with Julie felt so comfortable, so natural and so right.

It was a weekend, I will never forget.

Photos by Audrey Dotson