In the March 2021 edition of Discussions with DPIC, Death Penalty Information Center Senior Director of Research and Special Projects Ngozi Ndulue is joined by Carine Williams — the Chief Program Strategy Officer at the Innocence Project — for a conversation about innocence, the death penalty, and “the function of freedom.” Reflecting on the gross miscarriage of justice exhibited in wrongful convictions and exonerations, Williams stresses two critical themes: death is irrevocable and ending the death penalty is simply not enough.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Ndulue and Williams first discuss the case of Albert Woodfox, one of Williams’ former clients who just marked his five-year anniversary of exoneration after spending almost 44 years in retaliatory solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. Woodfox was one of the “Angola 3,” three Black men at the prison who were falsely accused of murdering a white prison guard. Woodfox was sentenced to life in prison in 1973 because the death penalty was unavailable at the time as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia. His decades of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement were “not for any legitimate security concern,” Williams explained. “It was pure punishment — punishment that wasn’t meted out by a judge but by these prison officials, who had lived with and worked with the corrections officer who had been killed.”

Williams and Ndulue also discuss the pervasive and discriminatory effect of race on every aspect of the criminal legal system. “There’s no way to disaggregate this country’s history with chattel slavery and racism from any facet of the criminal justice system,” said Williams. “Slavery was abolished in this country in 1865. And the country turned to criminal justice as a means of racial control.” Williams notes that the prison where Woodfox was located is on the land where a plantation once stood. “It just seems like the continuity between those moments are — we’re still talking about the place where death row is — where we’re still talking about the place where people are spending their entire lives,” Ndulue said. “It is really crystal clear that we are still doing some of the same things and that the legal system is still engaging in some of the same work that has been part of that work of supporting racial hierarchies for our entire nation’s history here.”

Ndulue and Williams also explain that exonerations involving DNA evidence show the injustices and systemic failures of the system in the far greater number of cases in which DNA evidence is unavailable or DNA testing has been denied. “[T]he DNA cases tell us not just about what we see in that one exoneration, but what we are not seeing, right?” Williams explained. “Like if you’ve ever lived in a house with roaches … you know that when you walk into the kitchen at night and you flip the light switch on, if you see one or two roaches scurrying away, you know without question that you have a whole lot more than one or two …. [T]hat’s the way it is with these DNA exonerations. They — the light — is just telling us what’s really hidden behind this fiction.”

They also discuss the work and advocacy by exonerees, many of whom continue to fight for justice for others once they have been exonerated. “It never ceases to amaze me how often and how ardently people who have lost already so much of their lives to the gross miscarriage of justice that is wrongful conviction and who get out and who opt to use whatever time they have left here, right on Earth, they opt to use that time to work on preventing injustice from happening to others,” said Williams. “I mean, just see it happen over and over again. Exonerees are out in front of every single criminal justice reform issue out there, including abolition of the death penalty, right? … [T]hat’s why I love my job. Like that piece of it is what makes me excited to get to work on Monday.”

“You know, I always talk about the Toni Morrison quote that ‘the function of freedom is to free somebody else.’ And our clients live that. And they remind me to live that,” said Williams. “And I hope that what I do in the world [is] remind the people around me to also live that.”