By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published November 2, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—Sybil Robinson had a passion for social justice and helping those in need—and through her leadership at St. Anthony of Padua Church, she shared that passion with others. Nearly a year after her sudden death, Robinson’s friends and family came together for the inaugural Sybil M. Robinson Social Justice Forum at her beloved Atlanta parish.
The sanctuary of St. Anthony was full Oct. 22 for the forum, which featured Clare Gilbert and Grace Akan of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP). The highlight of the event was speaker Calvin C. Johnson Jr., who was released from prison in 1999 as the first person in Georgia to be exonerated because of DNA evidence.
Akan, the project’s deputy director, spoke first and shared statistics. It is estimated that in Georgia and Alabama, where the GIP works, there are 2,500 people who have been wrongly convicted—or about 3 to 5 percent of all those incarcerated. Though it affects people of all races, backgrounds and ethnicities, the majority of those who have been exonerated have been African-American.
Akan said that their mission is to “free the wrongfully convicted by finding evidence that leads to the real perpetrator.” There are challenges to their work. Even if evidence is readily available, which is rare, she said, there are often restrictions to using that evidence in court.
“Also, prosecutors and courts don’t want to admit their mistakes,” she said. “So we’re often fighting an uphill battle.”
Wrongful convictions can happen to anyone, Akan said. The GIP also works to help exonerees put their lives back together. Like many states, Georgia does not have a compensation law for those wrongfully convicted. Therefore exonerees must find a home, source of income and other resources, often after years—even decades—of imprisonment.
Gilbert, executive director of GIP, said that Johnson, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 16 years for a rape he did not commit, unfortunately does not have a unique story.
“Sadly, 16 years in prison is not that unusual,” Gilbert said. “We currently have a client who has been in prison for 41 years for a crime we are certain he didn’t commit.”
The process of overturning a wrongful conviction can take a long time, she said.
“Once you are convicted, that right to be presumed innocent goes right out the window,” she said. “You have a constitutional right to an appeal, but you have no constitutional right to innocence—even if you are factually proven to be innocent. We have cases where the attorney-client privilege trumps innocence.”
Gilbert is passionate about the work she does.
“If you can’t tell, it makes my blood boil. It makes me so angry at the injustice of it all, and the outrage is what motivates me to keep me going, but I have trouble finding balance in my life. And I am not the victim. Imagine what it’s like to be these people in prison for these crimes they didn’t commit,” she said.
“How do they cope with the anger, the frustration and the rage? That’s where Calvin comes in. He has lived this, and he has a lesson for us all. He managed to turn this into something positive and good, and he is an inspiration to us all.”
It was a beautiful day in the 1980s. Then 25-year-old Johnson was just walking home from the gym and said he had a funny feeling. Little did he know that that day he would be arrested, then later tried and convicted for a rape he did not commit.
“I never thought I’d do a day in prison. This is a great country. As I grew up in this great country, every time I heard about someone being arrested, you think, ‘they’re guilty.’ Anytime someone gets convicted, you think, ‘the judge says they’re guilty—they’re guilty.’ I believed that for years,” he said.
After his arrest, they threw him in a cold, damp cell.
“They handcuffed me so tight, I still have little marks on my wrist,” he said. “I kept thinking any day they’d realize they made a mistake and they were going to let me go. But they didn’t let me go.”
At his trial, Johnson came face-to-face with his accuser—a woman he’d never seen before in his life. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including Johnson’s then distinguishing facial hair, the all-white jury convicted the African-American man.
Johnson did what he could to survive in prison, where he witnessed violence and hatred.
“Years went by, and I got frustrated and angry and just so, so upset. I couldn’t understand why I was in prison when I was innocent,” he said. “I got to the point where I started questioning God. And I almost got to the point where I wanted to turn my back on God, because I didn’t understand.”
Then he started going to church services. Slowly but surely, he had a change of heart.
“The Word started sneaking in and I was being fed—even though I didn’t realize it,” he said. “I remember feeling just so frustrated. I was like a rubber band—stretched so thin that any second I was going to pop. I got to the point where the burden got too heavy for me. That’s when I got on my knees. And that’s when my life changed.”
He began praying for the detectives, prosecutors and jury members who convicted him.
“Finally, I felt free,” he said. “The burden was released.”
Not long after the spiritual awakening, Johnson heard about the new science behind DNA evidence. Johnson shared his story with a legal counselor who came to the prison. He later reached out to the Innocence Project, which at that time was only in New York. After research and testing, the DNA showed that Johnson could not have committed the crime. In 1999, he was exonerated of all charges.
Now a free man, Johnson has worked as a supervisor for MARTA for many years, and has a wife and children. He has shared his story around the world and in his book, “Exit to Freedom.”
“Sometimes it’s not always easy, but people need to hear—when you look at your TV and you hear that a rapist or murderer has been caught, you might think, ‘I’m so glad they got that guy. I hope they give him a life sentence,’” he said. “They may be guilty
and may deserve a life sentence; they might deserve to be taken off the street. But before you convict them without a fair trial, give them the benefit of the doubt. They may be a person who has been accused falsely.”
Johnson received a standing ovation following his talk and signed copies of his book at a reception in the church’s Adamski Hall.
Many family members of Sybil Robinson made the trip to Georgia to attend the first forum in her honor. Her mother, Martha Robinson, traveled from California.
“I wanted to represent my daughter. This is truly an honor for her,” she said.
Robinson’s cousin, Faith Ough, came from Arizona for the event.
“So much of Sybil’s spirit and her energy was put toward helping innocent people and poor people and really anyone in need,” said Ough. “I feel like having an event with someone like Calvin is honoring Sybil because he is free because of people like my cousin.”
Pam Tennell, a parishioner of St. Anthony, was emotional when speaking about her friend Robinson.
“It is a bittersweet day—so heartwarming, but I miss her so much. Sybil really used her voice to help those who were voiceless. She didn’t give us time to rest,” she said. “We need to continue speaking God’s love and stepping outside of our comfort zones like she did. Her legacy was her passionate service, and our goal is to keep that moving forward.”
To learn more about the work of the Georgia Innocence project, visit www.georgiainnocenceproject.org.