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Fighting to free the falsely convicted: The Georgia Innocence Project finds an audience

The Georgia Innocence Project’s (GIP) mission is to secure the release and exoneration of people imprisoned in Georgia on crimes they did not commit. GIP re-investigates cases from scratch to determine actual innocence and whether modern DNA testing could prove that innocence, and then GIP represents clients in court on their innocence claims. After exoneration, the GIP offers clients support in everything from helping them obtain compensation, to connecting them with health care providers, transportation, housing, and job training.  GIP also effects change through legislation and public education campaigns.

We spoke with the GIP’s interim director Clare Gilbert about their Georgia Gives Day plans, their larger fundraising strategy, and how ending up on the popular podcast Undisclosed, wherein three attorneys review a single criminal case over the course of a season, helped spotlight the organization while giving their client a new shot at freedom.

With Georgia Gives Day coming up, tell us about your strategy for this year.

Our Georgia Gives Day strategy for this year is to activate our existing donor base and inspire new donors to raise funds and support our work, so that we can continue our fight to prove the innocence of the falsely convicted.  With an estimated 3 to 5% of inmates in Georgia and Alabama prisons (roughly 3,250 people) innocent of the crime on which they were convicted, we have our work cut out for us. Every single donation, no matter how small, helps us accomplish our mission.

We have very limited staff and resources (only two full time staff members). Despite that, last year we raised roughly $10,000 dollars on Georgia Gives Day by promoting power hours and activating prior interns in peer to peer fundraising. This year, we plan to repeat those strategies as well as incorporate several ideas suggested on the Georgia Gives Day resources page.  We intend to reach out to volunteer fundraisers, promote the selfless selfie campaign, secure and pitch matching contributions, and engage our board in the fundraising process.  While we're a little late to begin, we're looking forward to a successful 2016 Georgia Gives Day campaign.

What is GIP’s strategy for attracting donors?

It’s hard oppose freeing innocent people from prison. Everyone can understand being accused of a crime they did not commit. Everyone can imagine, “What if it happened to me?” Everyone gets that when we imprison the wrong person, the real perpetrator remains at large to target another victim.

That said, our issues are raw, grisly, and troubling – frequently involving issues of race, poverty, and abuses of power. Victims of crime justifiably can be loathe to reopen old wounds, regardless of the reason. Criminal justice reform is a politically sensitive topic, and tackling structural failings in the criminal justice system can be overwhelming. 

So – we try to bring it back to the basics: our clients and their stories. We put a face to the statistic and a try to give a voice to the imprisoned innocent who’ve been silenced by the system. We tell stories, true fascinating stories with deep human emotions that always involve at least two victims. We make it personal.

And, we’ve got a good logo. Generously designed, implemented and donated by the Brand Communications team at Thrive, our hatch mark logo represents bars of a prison cell, the marking of time as years are lost to wrongful imprisonment, and the rising count of DNA exonerations. Thrive also helped us develop and implement a great new website.

With these tools, we are reaching out to new donors by re-energizing and inspiring our board of directors, reaching millions through a wildly popular podcast featuring a GIP case, honing our social media strategy, strengthening our community presence, and educating people across Georgia to pay attention and seek accountability and justice. We are so grateful to Georgia Gives Day for helping us spread the word about our work and enabling us to reach potential donors across Georgia.

How was the case of your client Joey Watkins selected to be the subject of Undisclosed’s second season?

We prove innocence through DNA testing. However, every now and we encounter a case where, after undertaking a thorough investigation, we determine that DNA testing won’t pan out - but we are still thoroughly committed to the person’s innocence. Recognizing that we are our client’s very last resort, we don’t want to give up on our client.

Joey Watkins’s was one such case. Joey was a typical teenage boy from small town Georgia who, due to a perfect storm of events, found himself imprisoned for life with virtually no legal options left, short of discovering who actually committed a murder sixteen years prior.  Joey’s case was tremendously complicated with 101 named states witnesses, a profound lack of physical evidence, a flood of gossip and a wake of failed legal arguments. Without door-to-door, boots-on-the-ground investigating to uncover new evidence or solve this murder, Joey might spend the rest of his life in prison on a crime he did not commit.

However, in late 2015, GIP was suffering financial hardship as its major federal grant was ending and donations were at an all-time low. We just didn’t have the resources anymore to dedicate so much time and energy to one case, especially an apparent non-DNA case. That's when we started thinking about the podcast. Undisclosed was wrapping up its first season, and we all were enthralled with their work. Then one of our attorneys said, "They're doing a call for submissions for season two—let's do it!"

Initially, I was opposed: Joey’s case was very messy, and opening your client to intense media scrutiny can potentially become a lawyer's nightmare. But after investigating his case further, and becoming more convinced that details originally dismissed as inconsequential or red herrings were actually additional indicators of his innocence, we decided to pitch it. I wrote up a summary and sent it to Undisclosed, and they contacted us pretty much the next day. They spent maybe two weeks asking us questions, a very intense process, and then decided to take the case as their subject for season two.

Joey’s story is fascinating, especially as told by the Undisclosed podcast. Over 4.5 months and dozens of episodes, we learn about missing evidence, jailhouse snitches, dead dogs, teenage love triangles, ill-prepared and disbarred attorneys, overlooked alternate suspects, a rogue detective hellbent on getting a conviction, an imprisoned investigator, a district attorney fighting for a judicial appointment, an acquitted co-defendant, and two heartbroken families, each coping with the loss of a beloved son.

In our collaboration with Undisclosed, we hope to give Joey the voice to tell his story, and to shed light on the systemic problems that not only led to his conviction, but have resulted in the convictions of an untold number of other innocent defendants.

Have you seen any change in donations since July?

The July 2016 launch of Season 2 of the podcast coincided with the launch of our new logo, website, fundraising platform and donor database. So yes, we definitely have seen a change for the better in donations since July.  We previously were getting very few donations through our website. That has increased exponentially, several times over. We also have been able to track podcast-related donations since imbedding a check-box into the donate page for donors to indicate whether they are giving to GIP because of the podcast. Absent some other pressing campaign such as a targeted fundraiser, I’d say about 75% of the donations through our website are Undisclosed-podcast-related. Many of those donations are from across the country.

We do, however, want to make a more concerted effort to reach out to Georgia donors. We’ve got lots of work left to do right here in Georgia right and Georgians are the people who will affect systemic change in Georgia. Our communities are in Georgia. The districts that generate the false convictions that imprison our clients are right here in Georgia. That is why we are looking forward to Georgia Gives Day!  Raising local awareness of the organization and our issues, and building a stable donor base, will enable us hire additional staff, which will in turn enable us to do so much more.

Rachel Letcher is Communications Coordinator at GCN. 

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