Pennsylvania Innocence Project launches support group for exonerees

Cherri Gregg
March 13, 2019 - 6:28 pm
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has launched a first of its kind support group for men and women who did time behind bars for crimes they did not commit, and the kickoff meeting was in North Philadelphia.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has launched a first of its kind support group for men and women who did time behind bars for crimes they did not commit, and the kickoff meeting was in North Philadelphia.

"When I tell people they do the same thing you did, with the eyebrows and the mouth drop, like oh, my God!" said Muhammad Don Ray Adams, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of two men.

"Nineteen years, five months and 29 days," Adams said of the amount of time he spent in prison. 

Now in his 60s, Adams was 32-years-old when he was accused and later sentenced to life in prison.

"They tried to put me on death row," he said. "I just thank God for being home every day."

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But Adams never gave up. Representing himself in appeal after appeal, he won a new trial where the key witness came forward recanting her story. A jury found Adams not guilty in 2011.  

Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Adams is part of a tribe of 65 men and women across Pennsylvania who spent years, sometimes decades, behind bars, and were later proven innocent.

"When they get out of prison, they literally just get out of prison," said Marissa Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

She says when individuals who are convicted are released from prison, there are reentry programs and halfway houses that aid in the transition. But for those wrongfully convicted, there is zero support.

“When you’re in prison, in order to participate in programs, you have to admit what you’ve done,” she said. “but when you’re innocent, you either have to lie or not participate.”

Bluestine notes that when exonerees come home, few can understand that horror of what they’ve been through.

So Bluestine came up with the idea to create Transition to Innocence, a peer-lead support group for exonerees.

"It's only by interacting with each other will they reach another level of healing," she said. "They are helping themselves, lawyers are not involved."
 
Shaurn Thomas did 24 years for a murder he didn't commit. He was 20 when he was convicted; 44 when he was exonerated in 2017.

The toughest part of his transition, he said, was "being free." 

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Thomas will lead the support group. 

He went through training and now will use what his learned to help his brothers and sisters who fought for their freedom. 

"We stayed inside of a 9-by-6 cell for 15, 20, 26 years. Who wouldn't be traumatized," he said. "You coming out into the big world, this is all a culture shock."

PIP represented Thomas and helped him win his exoneration. Now he's paying it forward by helping others. He'll lead the group one Tuesday each month.

"We trying to get everybody together to do something ain't never been done before," he said. 

He will work with a co-facilitator. 

The group will meet at the Honickman Learning Center & Technology Lab, which is run by Project Home. They will also have access to computer classes and other services.