May 9, 2018

Justice for Wrongfully Imprisoned Is Topic of Library Talk and Exhibit

“I AM INNOCENT”: Clarence Brandley is one of more than 60 wrongfully imprisoned men and women who were released through the efforts of Centurion, the Princeton-based organization devoted to vindication. “I Am Innocent: The Migration Back to Freedom for the Innocent in Prison” a talk at Princeton Public Library on Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m., will explore the work that Centurion has been doing since 1980. (Photo by Diane Bladecki)

By Anne Levin

It is probably safe to say that many people regard the American criminal justice system as non-discriminatory. Legal decisions are determined by fair-minded judges and juries who take their cue from the principles of the Constitution. Right?

Not always, according to those who work among people convicted and jailed for crimes they did not commit. Wrongful imprisonment happens more frequently than most of us like to think. It is the topic of a talk at Princeton Public Library on Thursday, May 10, at 7 p.m.

“I Am Innocent: The Migration Back to Freedom for the Innocent in Prison” will explore the work that Centurion, the Princeton-based organization devoted to vindication, has been doing since 1980. The presentation is a companion to a photo exhibit by Diane Bladecki, capturing the stories of those who have been freed after serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. The show is on view in the library’s Reading Room and other second floor areas through the end of May.

“I’ve heard it said that we have the best criminal justice system in the world,” said Kate Germond, Centurion’s executive director. “I don’t know about that. What I do know is that if you’re black or brown in America, this isn’t a particularly fair system for you.”

Germond, who has been with Centurion since the mid-1980s, will be joined by attorney Paul Casteleiro and investigator Alan Maimon at the event. Casteleiro was the lawyer for the organization’s first case, it’s most recent, and many in between. Maimon has been working on Centurion’s current case in New Orleans.

The talk and exhibit are part of the Princeton Migrations Project, an exploration of the migrations theme that has been taking place throughout the community since February. Germond plans to focus on the history of Centurion and her experiences as an investigator on numerous cases. Since its founding by Jim McCloskey, the organization has gained release of more than 60 men and women who were wrongly imprisoned. More than 1,500 requests for help arrive at Centurion each year.

Germond got involved after moving to New York from Northern California. “I saw this great article about Jim and the work he was doing in the New York Times, and I called him,” she recalled. “We met, and thought we could get along, and the rest is history.” Asked if she had a legal background, Germond laughed. “I just read a lot of mysteries,” she said. “I’m very organized, and that’s what I did for this organization and for Jim. Also, my entrance meant he could finally take cases outside of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He worked on one death penalty case where a man had come within six days of execution, twice. He literally blocked him off of death row.”

Once Centurion begins work on a case, it can take years. “I think what people don’t realize is the long, difficult, arduous fights that can be involved in getting these folks exonerated,” Germond said. “Sometimes it isn’t about justice, and that’s a big surprise to people. There can be pure meanness involved. So that’s the big awakening when people actually, for whatever reason, come to understand the breadth and depth of a story of wrongful conviction.”

The organization works to uncover lost evidence, find new evidence, convince a coerced witness to come forward with the truth, and overturn false confessions. Sometimes they even find the true criminal in a case.

All of the former prisoners in Bladecki’s photo exhibit are well known to Germond. “I have relationships with all of them,” she said. “I’ve been working on their cases, whereas Diane’s relationships have to do with taking the pictures and getting to know them after they are released.”

Part of what makes the work so rewarding is the attitude of the exonerated. “When you meet them, it’s life changing,” said Germond. “You are blown away by how sweet and ordinary and kind and well spoken they are. People have prejudices about the incarcerated, and they just wipe that away. They are not bitter. They have forgiven everybody who put them in prison.”