Innocence Network conference focuses on freeing wrongfully convicted inmates

Former inmates share stories of freedom

SAN ANTONIO – The Innocence Network conference kicked off Friday morning at the Hyatt Regency on the River Walk.

The conference hosts criminal defense experts from across the U.S. and features more than 40 workshops for attorneys, innocence organization administrators and those who have been exonerated of crimes.

One of the attendees, Barry Scheck, was a member of the defense team that help to acquit O.J. Simpson. Scheck is also the co-founder of the New York City-based Innocence Network.

"Over 58 organizations in the United States (are in attendance), and as many as maybe 10 internationally that specialize in getting people out of prisons who didn't commit the crimes, and putting together reforms of the criminal justice system here in the United States and across the world to prevent wrongful convictions," Scheck said.

The Innocence Project of Texas is one of those 58 organizations that works toward freeing innocent people. Mike Ware, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, who also represented the "San Antonio 4," said his organization gets enough letters from a sampling of the 143,000-plus inmates in Texas prisons to keep it busy.

"In the Texas penitentiary, when you figure the error rate is somewhere between 2-6 percent, do the math. That's a whole lot of innocent inmates in Texas prisons," Ware said.

Scheck and Ware are in town for the conference, as well as about 160 men and women who were freed from prison after their convictions were overturned. Johnnie Lindsey said it took 26 years to prove his innocence by DNA testing.

"A female had claimed that she had been assaulted on a certain day at a certain time, and I was able to finally prove that on that date and that time that I was at work. DNA testing confirmed that it would have been impossible that I was the perpetrator," Lindsey said.

Another one of the exonerated people at the conference, Steven Chaney, said that despite spending 27 years locked up for a double homicide that he didn't commit, he tried to make the most of it. He said it was no easy task because he left six children and a wife at home.

"I got my college education, two additional vocations, played in the praise team in the chapel, learned how to read music and play instruments and stuff. (It) helped me to focus on what I was doing each day at a time," Chaney said.

David Wiggins said he was sent to prison in 1982 for aggravated sexual assault of a child. One day, he said he stumbled across what he suspected might be his saving grace.

"I read an article in the prison paper that Barry Scheck had (written), how they found innocent people guilty, and it was kind of like tears (ran) down my eyes," Wiggins said. "That was like '98.  Then I sent a letter and I said, 'You won't be disappointed if you take my case. I didn't do this.'"

It worked. But it took several more years for him to walk out of prison a free man.

"It's kind of like when they first told me, the jury, that I had a life sentence -- guilty and had a life sentence. (I was) shocked. I couldn't believe it after all that time," Wiggins said.

For more information on the Innocence Network and the Innocence Project of Texas, click on the links below.

LEARN MORE: Innocence Network & Innocence Project of Texas