I’m writing a book about family members of people who’ve been wrongly convicted of serious crimes and fully exonerated.
It’s a familiar scene—a recently-released prisoner, just exonerated and flanked by his lawyer, steps out of the courthouse and takes his first free breath. Exonerations always get media coverage, and television and video cameras form an electronic thicket around the exoneree as reporters call out their questions: “How do you feel?” and “Are you angry?” We love to hear from the newly-exonerated, to feel with him the first delicious flush of freedom and justice, to hear first-hand from the men who’ve been to hell and have now returned.
And there’s always a family member there--usually a woman--grinning from ear-to-ear, standing by, beaming with love and joy. She is rarely heard from, but you can bet she did the time with him and is now feeling her own first flush of freedom and justice. As Sylvia Barnes, mother of a man who was incarcerated for 20 years for a murder he did not commit, says whenever talking about her experiences, “We were all incarcerated.” In the televised coverage of the actual courtroom proceedings of an exoneration, cameras always pan back to the folks sitting in the room and we catch glimpses of these women as they bow their heads in silent prayer and hopefulness and erupt into ebullient cries of joy as the man is unshackled and officially proclaimed innocent. Until now, these women have never told their stories.
Collateral Damage explores the experiences of nine remarkable people—one mother, four wives, two sisters, one brother, and one daughter—and describes their struggles and persistence through years of staggering injustice, endless but futile appeals, heartbreaking false hopes, and, finally, the exhilarating vindication of the freedom of their loved one. Each story is different: from Sylvia Barnes, whose son Steve served 20 years in maximum security for murder, and who visited him every single weekend in prison, sometimes making the three-hour drive through a blizzard; to Panghoua Moua, a recent immigrant from a Thai refugee camp for Hmong people whose husband Koua Fong Lee was a primary defendant in the Toyota recall case and wrongly convicted of manslaughter; to Katie Monroe, who became her wrongfully-convicted mother’s attorney and eventually won freedom for her, each woman’s story highlights a different aspect of the tragedy of wrongful conviction, while simultaneously showing the strength and devotion that people are capable of under extreme pressure. The picture above shows Dallas exoneree Johnny PInchback hugging his mom after his exoneration, with his wife Sandra standing in the background; Johnny was in prison for 27 years for two rapes he did not commit, and Sandra stood by him the entire time. This is a book not just about pain and struggle, but also about love and faith.
I've been traveling around the country interviewing exoneree’s moms, wives, and siblings for the past six months. The working title of my book is "Collateral Damage: The Outrage of Wrongful Conviction--Eight Families Stories." I don't have a publisher yet--which is why I'm on Kickstarter, pleading my case and asking for financial help. My agent is working on finding a publisher, but in the meantime, my travel expenses are mounting. I've been using my credit cards to pay for flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars to visit and interview the subjects of the book, and this morning I had a rude shock: I'm almost $7,000 in debt. I need your help.
My goal with this book is two-fold: first, I want to publicize the fact that wrongful conviction harms many, many people, not just those who are wrongfully convicted. Families and friends suffer great pain and privation when trying to support a wrongfully-convicted loved one.
My second goal for Collateral Damage is to tell these amazing stories of pain, perseverance and devotion--exonerees and their families are the strongest and most profoundly inspirational people I have ever met. I want to share their stories with the world, and I need your help to do so.
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
The major risk with Collateral Damage is that my agent will not be able to find a publisher within the next few months; in that case, I will keep looking, but I will also pursue self-publishing. If that happens, there will be a delay in giving the planned reward of a signed copy of the book.
In addition, for you larger benefactors, scheduling the reward dinner will be challenging, depending on where in the country you live. We will have to coordinate schedules and travel plans.
Collateral Damage is almost 2/3 complete, and I have two more trips planned: I will be traveling to Minnesota and Texas in November to interview two families. I've been on sabbatical since February working on this book, and my time away from teaching (I'm a college English professor) ends in February 2013. With or without the Kickstarter funds, I am absolutely determined to finish this book. This is my second book--the first is called "The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture," and you can find it on amazon.com. Collateral Damage will be a book, and it will find a home with a fantastic publisher--it's just a matter of time.
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