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Alicia (Viscomi) Williams '09
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- Curry Hosts 'The Innocence Panel': Convicted of Crimes They Did Not Commit
Curry Hosts 'The Innocence Panel': Convicted of Crimes They Did Not Commit
April 19, 2012
Two cases of exonerated individuals were the focus of "The Innocence Panel," a discussion hosted at Curry College's Milton campus on April 6, 2012. Panelists included nationally recognized speakers Fernando Bermudez and Dennis Maher, both of whom served nearly 20 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The panel also featured Elizabeth Regan, senior paralegal with the New England Innocence Project.
"Whatever happens in life, you can overcome adversity", exclaimed Fernando Bermudez.
Bermudez detailed the struggle for his sense of self while serving 18 years in New York State maximum security prisons after he was wrongfully convicted of murder in the shooting death of Raymond Blount in 1991. "Such a situation can erode your personal dignity if you don't try to maintain it," he explained.
The only evidence against him involved mistaken and coerced eyewitness identification by five teenagers, who later recanted their testimony. After maintaining his innocence and holding onto the hope that justice would prevail, Bermudez was finally proven innocent in 2009 with the help of pro bono attorneys from Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York. It took eleven attempts to overturn his conviction.
Bermudez is now adjusting to life outside of prison with his wife and three children, completing his bachelor's degree in behavioral science and lending support to others in similar situations. Eyewitness misidentification is the number one cause for wrongful convictions in the United States, according to the Innocence Project.
In the second exoneration case, Dennis Maher spoke about the moment when he was found guilty of crimes he did not commit: "The judge asked me 'Mr. Maher, do you have anything to say?' and I said 'Yes, Your honor...if you think that this is justice, then you and the whole justice system is a crock of (expletive). He then doubled my sentence."
Maher, a U.S. Army sergeant at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 after two separate trials of attacks on three women. "At one point I came to have peace with myself that I was going to die in prison, but I never stopped filing stuff in court."
Maher proclaimed his innocence and went without legal representation for sixteen years until he finally discovered the New England Innocence Project, and wrote to them for help. It wasn't until 2001 before the Innocence Project, after repeated efforts, located long-misplaced evidence from the first trial in the basement of the Middlesex Superior Court. DNA test results excluded Dennis Maher as the source on the evidence and subsequently on the evidence for the second trial. Dennis Maher, now married with two children, was exonerated in April 2003 after 19 years in prison.
Because Massachusetts did not have a DNA access law, Maher spent an additional 6 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. Maher testified during the judiciary hearings in June 2011 in support of the DNA Access Bill, bill S. 1987, which was recently signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick on February 17, 2012.
Elizabeth Regan, senior paralegal with the New England Innocence Project recalled efforts undertaken to educate lawmakers about the importance of such legislation and said "Massachusetts is the second-to-last state to pass a law of this kind."