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Innocence Project brings message of healing to Greenwich

October 10, 2018

GREENWICH — In September 1989, James Tillman was convicted of a brutal crime. A woman in Hartford was warming up her car when a man pushed his way inside the vehicle and, after driving her to a secluded spot, proceeded to beat her, rob her and rape her.

Tillman was arrested, stood trial and was sentenced to 45 years in prison after being found guilty, primarily based on eyewitness identification.

But he didn’t do it.

After 18-and-a-half years in prison, Tillman was released in 2006 after DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime.

Tillman shared his story Wednesday morning before the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich, speaking along with Audrey Levitan, director of development and external affairs for The Innocence Project. That group worked to introduce the DNA evidence that ultimately cleared Tillman’s name.

“I was locked in some of the toughest prisons, and all for a crime I did not commit,” Tillman said. The details of his time in prison would scare the audience, he said, calling it “hell on Earth.”

What Tillman most wanted to share, though, was his story of forgiveness and love. He discussed the word “conviction” and its dual meanings. Tillman said he knows both what it is like to live with conviction and to be wrongly convicted.

“Conviction can be a powerful thing,” he said. “When you have conviction it means you hold beliefs that are so strong that nobody can take them away. When I was locked up, nobody in the world besides my mother and my brother thought I was innocent, but I held conviction… Conviction can also be used in a negative way. We convict others or we judge them and talk about them negatively when they don’t deserve it. We convict others out of ignorance, but we find freedom when we live in love, not hate, and when we seek redemption, not revenge, and when we ask for forgiveness.”

The investigation into the crime was incomplete, Tillman said. He was sent to prison not because he committed the crime, Tillman said, but because he could have. Before a verdict came in, prosecutors presented him with a plea bargain that would have meant a year in prison — with good behavior — if he confessed to the crime, Tillman said.

But he turned it down.

“I didn’t even have to think about it,” Tillman said. “I would rather serve 100 years in prison before I admitted to something that I didn’t do.”

In 2005, the Innocence Project took on Tillman’s case. Advanced DNA testing on all of the samples taken after the assault proved he was not the perpetrator.

On June 6, 2006, his conviction was vacated, and a month later all the charges were dropped. By then, Tillman said he had already taken all his anger over the unjust conviction and flipped it — to turn it into love and faith after all his years in prison.

When Tillman and others tell about their experiences, Levitan said, it puts a face on problems in the criminal justice system and increase the call for reforms.

“There is nothing like hearing the story of someone who has been wrongfully convicted to really understand what this really is all about and the tragedies that are caused by our criminal justice system,” she said.

The Innocence Project, with chapters around the country, recently marked its 25th year as a national organization. Originally established at the Cardozo Law School, the organization uses DNA evidence to help free those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Before it was formed, only five people had been exonerated by DNA evidence, and no state had post-conviction DNA testing statutes.

Since the project began, 362 people — including 20 on death row — have been exonerated by DNA testing, and all 50 states have statutes that allow DNA testing, Levitan said. As a result of proving factual innocence in “these extreme and serious cases,” numerous states have abolished the death penalty, she said. In 158 cases, the guilty criminal was found using the same evidence.

“Our mission is to free the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and reform the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment,” Levitan said. “It started a movement and now there are close to 60 organizations across the country working locally and in jurisdictions to free innocent people.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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