I draw much of my knowledge and strength from within but I cannot say where I’d be without the teachings and experiences of others who also guide me through this crazy life.
I’ll tell you about the people who’ve taught me some very important lessons about labeling, pointing fingers and how to really live. Through all of them, I’ve learned a true capacity for empathy, to err on giving the benefit of the doubt and allowing those who’ve done wrong a shot at redemption. I’ve also learned the most valuable lesson of all-forgiveness.
John Johnson and Steve Kaplan
Attorney, Steve Kaplan and retired private investigator, John Johnson have been lightning rods in my mission to help the wrongfully convicted. They’ve shown more generosity than I’ve ever known a person to possess. These men are compassionate beyond words and despite the many lifelong accomplishments under their belts, they remain humble. They rank high on my list of unsung heroes. Because of them our world is a much better place.
Johnny is a lifelong enforcer of the law. For over thirty years, he’s been dedicated to going after the bad guys. When something’s amiss, you’d better get out of his way so he doesn’t knock you over in an attempt to fix it. When he and I first met, he was retired but still assisting others and always on the lookout for the next opportunity. He’s a believer of the truth and of honoring ones work-related oath. In fact, I was warned early on that he hates liars. He can make you laugh until the tears flow or he can knock your socks off with his stories of bravery.
When Johnny and I had our first conversation about the Wisconsin Monfils case in 2011, he told me that during his career he had seen both good and bad cops and that it had always been his goal to maintain an honest integrity. When he picked up on my urgent need for help that day, he stepped up without hesitation. He often shares the irony of having spent his entire career making sure people got locked up to now spend his time trying to get them out! It had never occurred to him that there are innocent people in prison because of his faith in our judicial system. But let’s face it; we have to acknowledge that the system is run by humans and that humans make mistakes.
Just over a year ago Steve Kaplan was planning to retire from a long career at Fredrikson&Byron, PA-a very large and prestigious law firm in Minneapolis. He’d spent the better part of his life helping others as an attorney but he now had plans to scale way back. He’d just finished working on a very tiring and challenging but successful death row exoneration case that had lasted over a decade. He was ready to hand pressing legal matters over to more energetic hands. He thought he might dabble in a little legal work after retirement, but the overall idea was to have less stress and more time to relax.
That idea would soon be abandoned after an unscheduled meeting with both Johnny and I in January of 2013. Neither of us realized at the time of this meeting that our two-year search to find an attorney willing to dig in, would end that day with Steve. Upon reviewing what Johnny and I had given him, he agreed the convictions in this case were erroneous at best and needed to be vacated. He promised to look at the information Johnny had supplied him with.
Steve did end up retiring. But after about six weeks of retirement, he returned to the firm to work on this case. He also recruited a larger legal team to begin work on the case. Steve agreed the firm would represent one of the five men still in prison and in the meantime, find additional attorneys for the other four.
Attorneys in Wisconsin soon got on board. Expert witnesses were eventually hired. The overall sentiment of this team was that their clients came first. As the team’s work continued they were motivated by their understanding that these men have suffered greatly by enduring a life absent of their families, friends, jobs and activities they love. The work necessary to bring this case into a courtroom continues. But the five men now have hope because of the many people in both states who believe in them and fight for their freedom.
None of us have regretted our commitment to pursuing justice for these men. We’ve had our share of disappointments as we navigate the legal challenges but we never lose sight of the effects this tragedy has had on six men and their families. We all feel privileged to be part of this mission.
Exonerees Koua Fong Lee, Audrey Edmunds, Fred Saecker, Damon Thibodeaux and Mike Piaskowski
This experience has especially taught me the importance of avoiding negative feelings toward the system or toward those who cause its failings. Doing so has manifested positive feelings and understanding in all aspects of my life. Largely responsible for those lessons are the very people who live them-the wrongfully convicted. Many of whom are good friends, have figured out how to let go of their anger toward a system that wronged them. They focus on a renewal of relationships with their families and friends. They’ve begun to truly live and love again. They serve as an example to us all.
As in all successful ventures, this one perseveres because of the special people who care enough to get involved and do the hard work necessary to make it happen, and in a first do no harm sort of way.