Upper School Assembly with Guest Speakers Vanessa Potkin and Korey Wise
On Thursday, November 21, the Upper School welcomed Director of Post-Conviction Litigation at The Innocence Project and current parent Vanessa Potkin to speak at this month’s Upper School assembly. Vanessa has represented and exonerated over 30 innocent individuals, from Louisiana to Nevada. Collectively, they served over 500 years of wrongful imprisonment and five of them were originally prosecuted for capital murder. Korey Wise, an activist for criminal justice reform who was convicted in the “Central Park Jogger” case, joined Vanessa and provided insight into his experiences with wrongful conviction and incarceration and his current advocacy work.
Vanessa presented some alarming statistics surrounding incarceration in the United States. Currently, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. In 2018, 698 people incarcerated per 100,000 people. The Innocence Project represents clients seeking post-conviction DNA testing to prove their innocence. The organization also consults on a number of cases on appeal and provides information and background on DNA testing litigation. To date, 367 people have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who served time on death row.
The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but instead arise from systemic defects. Now an independent nonprofit organization affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project’s mission is nothing less than to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. Most recently, Vanessa and a team of lawyers at the Innocence Project represented Rodney Reed who was scheduled for execution this past Wednesday and has been granted a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after spending over 30 years in prison. The Innocence Project has also worked with the members of the "Central Park Five" (Korey Wise among them) whose stories were documented in the recent Netflix mini-series, "When They See Us."
Korey Wise is the oldest of the "five." While only 16 years old, he was considered an adult and remanded to New York’s notorious Rikers Island (the four others were younger and were sent to a juvenile detention center). He spent almost 12 years of his life in prison, maintaining his innocence from his conviction in 1989 until he was exonerated in 2002. Due to DNA testing years later on the recommendation of the Manhattan District Attorney, the convictions of Korey and the four other men also wrongfully convicted, were overturned. Today, Korey lives in New York City where he is an avid public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2015, the Colorado Innocence Project was renamed the Korey Wise Innocence Project in recognition of his generous financial support.
MCS' commitment to equality and social justice is at the center of our curriculum. Engaging students regularly in social activism gives them the confidence and voice to be members of society who strive to effect positive change. MCS students often study wrongful incarceration and prison reform as a part of their Social Justice Data projects in the Upper School. The fifth through eighth graders listened intently while Vanessa and Korey spoke and asked a variety of questions. Many students stayed long after the assembly to hear more about Korey's story. During the assembly, students viewed a trailer for "When They See Us." After the trailer was shown, Korey explained, “It's hard to see that. Every time I need to take a minute. It hurts.” Since his exoneration, Korey has been an advocate for criminal justice. "I try to take in every moment when I get a chance to visit schools. I do a lot of public speaking and I always enjoy being able to talk to young people," he said.