$50 for 50 by 50 #3: The Innocence Project

I’m turning 50 this year and instead of whining about it, I’m trying to do something positive by donating $50 to 50 different charities before I’m 50 years old.

I love binge-watching TV.  Perhaps a little too much.  Roughly 13 hours my life was lost last weekend when “House of Cards” season 4 came out and it isn’t the first time that has happened.

Another lost weekend is when I watched “Making a Murderer” on Netflix.

The documentary series is about Steven Avery, a man who was sent to prison for raping a woman in Wisconsin but freed after 18 years in large part due to the efforts of The Innocence Project.   That’s a tiny spoiler but I won’t tell you the rest if you haven’t seen it – what happens after he gets out of prison is the crux of the series and it’s incredible.

While I was watching it, I couldn’t help but remember an incident that happened to me about 20 years ago.  Before I tell this story, I want to stress that I know that what I went through is nothing compared to what Steven Avery and all the other people in the US who have been falsely imprisoned have had to endure, but it was still scary as hell.

Back in 1994, I had gone out at lunch to pick up a package at the post office (plane tickets to Iowa where they were doing one of my plays) and then grab some food at the Chinese place nearby.  As I came out of the restaurant, there was a plain-wrap police car blocking me from getting out of my parking space.  Two detectives pointed at my car and asked if it was mine – I replied yes.  They radioed and moments later two or three patrol cars came up quickly.  I asked what was going on and they wouldn’t tell me and instead asked me where I had been, what I was doing there, and so on.  They asked if they could search the car and I’m a 20-something and freaked out and so I said yes (understand my rights better now).

They finally told me that a little girl had been attacked nearby and the description of the car the person had sped away in matched mine and I matched the general description of the person who had done it.

They asked me to step out into the main drive of the shopping center and they had another plain wrap car pull up at the end of the aisle – maybe 150 feet from me.  In the back of the car was a little girl – she leaned forward, looked at me, and nodded.

They put me in cuffs, read me my rights, and put me in the back of a police car.  I’m trying not to weep hysterically at this point and suddenly I remembered the plane tickets… I told the cop that I had a receipt from the post office that would show that I couldn’t have been there.  About 20 minutes went by and I’m sitting in the back of the car cuffed the entire time until finally they pulled me out and uncuffed me.  The detective says, “If you did this, you’re really lucky and if you didn’t, sorry about that.”

Then I got in my car with my cold Chinese food and sobbed like an idiot.

It’s terrifying how thin the line is between your normal life and utter ruin – if I hadn’t had that receipt, I probably would have been taken to jail and booked, would have had to hire a lawyer, maybe even gone to trial.  And the entire time people would be looking at me as a child molester.

So donation #3 in my $50 for 50 by 50 campaign is the Innocence Project, the organization that uses DNA testing and other methods to exonerate people who have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.   For more information or to make a donation, visit innocenceproject.org.

innocence