Proven Innocent- A New Fox Drama, but a Real Life Battle for Rodney K. Stanberry
A new show about wrongful convictions is airing on Fox. Among its stars are Kelsey Grammer who plays a prosecutor seeking the office of state attorney, Rachelle LeFevrer, who plays Madeline Scott, an individual who was wrongfully convicted, exonerated and is now working tirelessly to help others in her situation, and Russell Hornsby, who helped to free Madeline Scott and is now working with her to free the innocent. I watched the show when it first aired on February 15th, 2019 and the second episode on February 23rd, 2019. I wrote the bulk of this blog after its first airing and will address some more issues in the second episode at a later time.
Watching the show filled me with so many emotions. The show has been with me all morning. I have shed many tears this morning. Thinking about the years my cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry spent in prison for crimes he did not commit. He spent 20 years in prison even though the prosecutor in his case had the truth, even a confession, BEFORE Rodney’s trial, thinking about how callous the Mobile District Attorney’s Office was and continues to be regarding his case and wrongful convictions, thinking about the many innocent people who remain in prison because far too many district attorneys are more concerned with the conviction, rather than the truth. The lead character in Proven Innocent was exonerated, spent a decade in prison, went to law school, started an innocence project and is now battling in court against the prosecutor who convicted her. My goal was to someday start an innocent project in Mobile, Alabama and to run a candidate against the Mobile DA in an election so that wrongful convictions would be one of the main focuses of the race. DA Ashley Rich and her protégé’ Jennifer Wright will likely be the face of the DA’s office for years to come. So watching the lead character fight back from a wrongful conviction, get a law degree, start an innocence project and then battle the prosecutor who prosecuted her is a made for TV drama that served as a reminder that I failed to carry through with my plans; a battle until Rodney is completely exonerated and issued a public apology by the Mobile DA.
When he was released in 2017, 20 years-time served, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. He is the person who had the 20 years taken from his life; his strength and determination was stronger than ever. On the day he was released, he wanted to hold a rally, but we settled for an interview as soon as he walked out of prison. He is an innocent man who has a desire to prove his innocence. The system worked against him, but as the public is more aware of how these wrongful convictions happen; his release does not and should not mean that we should move on and forget about what happened in the past. I am ready to pick myself back up. The destination is exoneration. Remember that mantra, it is often what I stated was the goal.
Two Year Anniversary
March 13th marks the second year anniversary of Rodney’s release from prison- 20 years time-served, and a massive travesty of justice. As mentioned, on the day that Rodney got out of prison, the plan was to hold a press conference in front of the Mobile Municipal Government building (Government Plaza) where the Mobile District Attorney’s Office is located. This did not happen as we were torn between Rodney enjoying his day of freedom versus hitting the ground running in the ongoing effort to fight for an exoneration. We were grateful that Bill Riales interviewed Rodney shortly after he exited prison. Riales was the first reporter to write an in depth piece on Rodney’s case. He will always be appreciated for his work as a journalist seeking the truth. Following his release and same day interview with Bill Riales, Rodney went on to have a dinner with family members and friends. Rodney did not hesitate to seek work upon his release. Before and during his wrongful conviction, and up to a week before he began his sentence on March 24th, 1997, Rodney worked at the same job, six years, without taking a vacation. He was actually on his job on March 2, 1992 when the vicious crimes took place that would affect two families forever. Rodney’s supervisors and co-workers testified that he was at work; he would have had to have been superman to be in two places at once (I discuss this in this blog- can one person be two places at once). The Mobile DA’s Office, knowing that they had a time issue, altered the time in which the crime took place. One of many signs that they, prosecutor Joe Carl Buzz Jordan, were not about the truth; the conviction was so much more important. When prosecutors do not seek the truth, they are not being pro victim, nor pro justice as justice is never served and victims do not get justice when the wrong person is convicted. Anyway, when Rodney was released, he sought to find work- as that was his character, a hardworking, decent, taxpaying individual. Prison did not change him; it did not change the core of who he is. It did take away 20 years of his work life; there is every indication that Rodney would have worked throughout those 20 years, earning a pension. His life and livelihood were taken away.
When Rodney was released, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I needed to take a break, to focus on my work, to just try to keep that long nightmare from impacting my day to day life again, at least without taking a short break from it all. I would not wish a wrongful conviction on any individual and on any family as it is such a painful daily experience. My vow to fight until he was exonerated took a back seat as I was just spent, mentally exhausted. Watching Proven Innocent last night was very powerful. It was very moving. It was very emotional. The system will not change if we do not push for change and reforms, and, yes, fight on behalf of those who are innocent and incarcerated (and innocent and released). My motto during Rodney’s incarceration was that the “destination is exoneration” and innocence is something that is worth fighting for. It was and is an uphill battle. This is about principal as much as it is about justice. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles is the entity that grants pardons and paroles, unless it is a capital case, to my knowledge; it is the entity that denied an innocent man parole three times, so the struggle and battle for a pardon in Alabama will be an uphill battle. Our goal is to also get a public apology from the Mobile District Attorney’s Office. This should not be as much of an uphill battle if DA Ashley Rich is about the truth and not about hiding behind a (wrongful) conviction. This battle may take another 20 years but I am in for the long haul. Perhaps one day I will be fortunate enough to complete a law degree, open an innocence project in Mobile, Alabama to set up a mechanism to help those currently innocent and incarcerated and to help prevent this from happening in the first place. Perhaps, but for now, my eyes are on pursuing an exoneration/pardon and an apology for Rodney K. Stanberry. This did not have to happen, the Mobile DA’s office had to come to terms as to why Joe Carl Buzz Jordan ignored the truth and sent an innocent man to prison for 20 years and why subsequent district attorney’s sanctioned his work. Buzz Jordan travelled from Mobile, Alabama to Rikers Island prison in New York to interview someone with intimate knowledge of the crimes. But, he said that he did not take notes because he was on vacation. This is how they operate? District Attorney Ashley Rich has her tough on crime credentials, she is popular; she should demonstrate that the integrity of the system is at the forefront of her office, including past convictions. When she was running for the seat in 2010, this is what she said: what is below and I still have the recording available embedded in the link- her comments below begin at the 12 minute mark:
Ashley Rich, a Mobile Assistant DA for 14 years and current candidate to replace John Tyson, Jr. said on a radio show in Mobile, AL on September 16, 2010 during the 7am (cst) hour in response to a question about the Duke LaCrosse case and prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence: “If as a prosecutor you do not disclose exculpatory evidence, your career is over. Integrity is something that is so important because when you are a prosecutor, you not only have the duty to prosecute people and to put people in jail, but you also have a duty to uphold the law. You have the duty to do that with integrity and with the ethical standards in place… You must disclose exculpatory evidence because if you don’t, nothing good comes from it and essentially you have prosecuted someone who may not have committed the crimes because you didn’t disclose exculpatory evidence. It is good that we have the Duke LaCrosse case as an example of what not to do.” She went on to say that she would reopen a case and evidence should be reviewed. You be the judge. (Note Ashley Rich was elected and is now the Mobile County District Attorney).
It is never too late to do the right thing. Rodney’s case is, in my view, a stain on the Mobile District Attorney’s Office. They tried and convicted an innocent man even as they had evidence that he was innocent. District Attorney Ashley Rich should set up a Conviction Integrity Unity to address cases with serious claims of innocence. Rodney’s case should be among the first to be considered. Twenty years of his life was taken away because the prosecutor, who was more concerned with the conviction, suppressed a confession, withheld exculpatory evidence, and continued to work to ensure that Rodney remained in prison. I won’t get into in this blog, but a segment in episode 2 of Proven Innocence touches on why the prosecutor in Rodney’s case may have justified in his mind why he worked to keep Rodney in prison. He even referenced Rodney’s case in a separate case that was very personal to him, as well as to the
victim’s family-again, I won’t get into it in this in this blog. In episode two of Proven Innocence, Kelsey Grammer’s character (Gore Bellows) is a district attorney running to be the state attorney. A new character appeared, a young women who completed her law degree and was ready to work for Grammer/Bellows. It turns out that she is the daughter of a victim of a violent crime. It is explained by Grammer’s character that he fought to keep the person who murdered her mother from getting out of prison, but that he was out lawyered and vowed to never allow that to happen again. The daughter of the victim stated that Grammer’s character is her hero. Maybe this is how prosecutors who convict the innocent clear their conscious, by convincing the victim’s family that they pursued justice to the very end; that they are the heroes and the innocent people that they convicted are the villains, even when they know that it is a false narrative. Hero status. The system, though, must do better; the system and the Mobile District Attorney’s Office must uphold the rule of law and ensure that the innocent are not incarcerated. This is the hero status that should be sought, freeing and exonerating the innocent, while ensuring actual justice for the victim. And on those occasions when the prosecutors do not uphold what the duties of the office should call for and do not uphold the integrity of the system, it must be imperative that the Office, in this case, the Mobile District Attorney’s Office, do so. District Attorney Ashley Rich can demonstrate that this is what she believes by doing right by Rodney’s case, and in this way, true justice can be served, for all involved.
We will continue to contemplate the next steps to our activism and keep you posted. Rodney will be 50 years old in April. He was in his twenties when he was wrongfully convicted and spent his 20s being wrongly accused, convicted, and in prison, his 30s in prison, and all but two years of his 40s in prison. He cannot get those years back, but he can get just a tiny sliver of justice with an apology and an exoneration and/or pardon. I have been reading up again on the pardon process in Alabama, I will write a blog in the future about the process. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.