Some work days are better than others. Yesterday was one of those days.
Johnnie Lee Savory is a very important person in the lives of many of us at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. For those of you who know Johnnie, you know exactly what I mean. For those of you who don’t, a short blog post can’t even begin to express what he has meant to so many of us. Whether we are talking about attorneys, law students, paralegals, volunteers, or exonerees, Johnnie has touched the lives of all of us.
Johnnie’s special brand of compassion, graciousness, and genuine kindness directed toward those of us at the Center has come while Johnnie himself has been tormented by what I have termed an abyss of injustice. As a fourteen-year-old boy living in Peoria in 1977, Johnnie was steamrolled by police and forced to confess to a double murder he did not commit. Johnnie spent the next 30 years in prison until he was paroled roughly eight years ago. For these 38 years, all Johnnie has ever asked for is the truth. And for the last 17 years, since the advent of DNA technology in the criminal justice system, Johnnie has explained to anyone who would listen that DNA would convey the truth. But for so long no court, no prosecutor, no governor, no [insert anyone with authority to order it here], would allow Johnnie to conduct those DNA tests.
For the eight years he has been out of prison, Johnnie has spent that time giving . To our students and others, Johnnie has patiently explained – time and time again – his story of injustice. He has watched one by one as others wrongfully convicted got DNA tests, or hearings, that exonerated them. And as those individuals attempted to navigate a post-exoneration life on the outside, Johnnie was there for them. Counseling them, helping them, giving to them. All the while, Johnnie still in the midst of his own injustice.
But yesterday was special because we got to give to Johnnie. Two years ago, at our urging, a court finally ordered those DNA tests. And yesterday, during a lengthy hearing that went well into the evening, we got to advocate on behalf of Johnnie – we got to argue, and put on evidence, and tell that story of truth that Johnnie always wanted to tell. And that story of truth, of course, is that Johnnie is innocent.
And what made yesterday even more special was that so much of this advocacy, this fighting, this giving to Johnnie was done by three incredible law students. Monica Pedroza, Emily Powers, and Amanda Toy presented our three witnesses. They were composed, prepared, and ultimately, powerful and persuasive in their direct examinations of these important witnesses. But don’t take my word for it. Take the judge’s. At nearly 7:00 p.m. as the hearing finally came to a close – long after any judge likes to stay around – our judge took several minutes to compliment these three extraordinary students on their preparation and presentation.
And as I reflect on this last paragraph, it hits me that even as I thought we were giving to Johnnie, here he was giving to us yet again. Neither Monica, Emily, nor Amanda had ever presented a witness in court before. Yet Johnnie trusted these students with his case, with his life – to enable our clinic to perform our mission to train students. Yet another act of graciousness from Johnnie in a life full of such acts.
Johnnie Lee Savory