Each year, the annual Benefit for Innocence Gala for the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) promises to be better than previous ones. That certainly was the case this time around. On Thursday October 8, 2015, a small group of close friends and family members accompanied me for the fourth year in a row. It was held at The Depot in Minneapolis. The keynote speaker was Erin Moriarty; a CBS Correspondent for the weekly crime series 48 Hours. Erin was quite approachable, engaging and genuinely sincere. What stood out for me was her compassionate stance on a mission she believes has everything to do with exposing real truths about how wrongful convictions occur. In her speech she talked about how her role affords her the chance to effectively help people. In some instances, having depicted wrongful conviction cases in the program has actually helped change the outcome in a positive way after the story aired. Erin’s overall message was one of personal fulfillment and the provision of hope for those whose stories have yet to be told.
Keynote Speaker Erin Moriarty
Erin was involved in a 48 Hours segment that aired on March 29, 2014 called, Last Chance, regarding the wrongful conviction of Damon Thibodeaux. Damon was in prison for sixteen years, fifteen of them on death row for a crime he did not commit. His sentence was carried out at the Angola Prison in Louisiana.
Because of that story, Erin has a direct connection with Attorney Steve Kaplan who is on the Board of Directors for the IPMN and was part of the legal team that worked on Damon’s case for twelve years. During that time Steve was Damon’s legal counsel and mentor and in 2012 when Damon was finally freed from prison, Steve was the one to pick him up at the prison gates. Together the two of them drove back to Minneapolis in Steve’s rental car. Steve had convinced Damon to move away from Louisiana and in with he and his wife until Damon could manage life as a free man. This amazing display of compassion prompted the IPMN to award Steve with the ‘Never Forgotten’ award, with Erin there as a witness. Steve, being the humble soul, agreed to accept it only if he wasn’t expected to give a speech. So when Steve accepted the award, he uttered a quick “thank you” and exited the stage to the sound of deafening applause. I am proud to be affiliated with Steve (for three years now). He’s the attorney representing my friend Keith Kutska; one of the five innocent men I advocate for in the Monfils case. I have the authority to say that Steve has since shown the same dedicated compassion towards Keith as he did with Damon. Here is a short clip of the noble work he does for his clients on YouTube.
Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux with Attorney Steve Kaplan. Photo courtesy of the IPMN
A new friend who attended the gala with us is Allison Lee. Allison’s brother David is currently serving a life sentence for murder and has been in prison for 29 years. Allison believes he’s innocent and has become more involved in her brother’s case in the past few years. She contacted me after learning of my letters to David since 2013. She wanted to set up a meeting to discuss his case. The meeting was held at my house with my associate Johnny Johnson; a retired private investigator. Allison had mentioned she wanted to contact one of the weekly TV series that covers cases like her brother’s so I arranged for her to join us at the gala. She was amazed at the coincidence and excited about the prospect of sharing her brother’s story with Erin Moriarty face to face. She took full advantage of her good fortune that evening. Erin was quite receptive to Allison’s pleas but added that she could not make any promises regarding the possibility of covering David’s case. All that mattered to Allison that evening was this rare opportunity.
Allison Lee, Joan Treppa, Clare Martinson, Erin Moriarty and exoneree Michael Piaskowski
Other friends joining us from Wisconsin were; exonerees Mario Victoria Vasquez and Michael Piaskowski and friend and author, John Gaie. My sister Clare Martinson also drove from Wisconsin with my niece Jordan Teague. Other friends in Minneapolis who attended were, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett, Sue Stang and hubby Jeff Johnson, exoneree Audrey Edmunds and her new beau Dave Anderson. We also met Sascha Matuszak, a multimedia journalist who recently connected with Mario and I and expressed a desire to learn about wrongful convictions. It was fun to reconnect with friends I don’t see often such as Erika Applebaum; former Executive Director of the IPMN, MN exonerees Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee and their wonderful families.
Mike and Joan Treppa, Jordan Teague, Mario Victoria Vasquez and Clare Martinson
Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez, author John Gaie and exoneree Mike Piaskowski.
Dave Anderson and exoneree Audrey Edmunds
Some of you will recall that I met local reporter/attorney Ted Haller from Fox 9 news at last year’s gala and that the story he did earlier this year about our Wisconsin case was up for an award. http://www.fox9.com/archive/1826477-story Although Ted’s story did not win, his sentiments to me in that regard included having the ability to help people as a first priority. Ted was emcee at the gala again this year so he took the opportunity in the first few minutes of his speech to mention me by name and to share his aspirations to continue to do stories like mine. He also voiced an appreciation of having people like me on the front lines to create them. It was very touching. Ted’s praise also prompted my husband to tell me how very proud he is of me, which was the most amazing highlight of the entire evening!
Emcee Ted Haller
Here’s a WCCO Ch. 4 Interview with Erin Moriarty.
Here’s a brief piece of Erin’s speech at the gala.
Here’s a link to more info on the Monfils case, a compilation of related news articles, interviews and recent activities.