UMKC School of Law hosted more than 400 people from around the world who work to bring justice to the wrongly convicted. More than 100 exonerees, some only three months out of prison, also were in attendance to celebrate their successes and look to the future.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the national Innocence Project, headlined the opening event. Since its founding in 1992, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 250 through DNA testing, including 17 who had been sentenced to death. Sean O’Brien, UMKC professor of law and board member of the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP), also addressed the attendees. MIP, which co-hosted the conference, achieved two exonerations in the past year.
“This is a chance to reflect on where we’ve been, stop and look at where we are now and reflect on where we’re going in the future,” O’Brien said.
Following welcome remarks, the exonerees were introduced one-by-one in an emotional presentation. The conference continued through the weekend with breakout sessions at the law school addressing topics ranging from the latest DNA testing research to the role of forgiveness after exoneration. Receptions allowed for attendees to talk with people who understand their plight. The conference concluded Saturday night with a concert made up of exoneree band members.
Dean Ellen Suni, who has been a longtime supporter of the Innocence Project and a board member and past president of the Midwest Innocence Project, said the conference was a great chance for attendees to learn more about the cause but also experience Kansas City and UMKC.
“Everyone who attended the Conference had positive things to say about the learning environment, the programs, UMKC and Kansas City. Not only did they learn a lot and develop new networking opportunities, but they had a good time as well,” she said. “Both the opening session that included introduction of nearly 100 exonerees and the closing concert, with exonerees as the performers, were inspirational.”
The conference, which is held annually, brings together projects from around the world that work toward freeing the innocent. More than 60 organizations were represented at this year’s event.
“The conference provides the opportunity for those doing this difficult but important work to come together and share ideas, increase knowledge and become reinvigorated by meeting with colleagues and exonerees and hearing their stories,” Suni said.
“Anyone listening to these innocent men and women, who lost significant parts of their lives in prison because of failings in our criminal justice system, can’t help but come away more invested in doing the work it takes to get those wrongfully convicted who are still incarcerated free.”