Commentary: YSU Students Embark on Innocence Project

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Forty-two people. Collectively, 800 YEARS behind bars. All wrongfully convicted. While no one can give them back that time, the Ohio Innocence Project has given 42 exonerees freedom, justice, a future and, hopefully, a sense of peace since making its home at the University of Cincinnati in 2003.

Now students at Youngstown State University will be able to share in that mission.

When attorney Pierce Reed told me that the Ohio Innocence Project was looking to add a student chapter (OIP-U) at Youngstown State University, I was filled with pride that YSU students will take on the issue of wrongful convictions.

Pierce is the director of policy and engagement for the Ohio Innocence Project at the Rosenthal Institute for Human Rights at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. I first met him when he was an integral part of Coleman Health Services’ inaugural “Unmute the Uncomfortable” symposium last February that focused on racial justice and mental health awareness.

Last September, Pierce invited Katie Cretella and me to Columbus. Cretella is with the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board. There the Ohio State University chapter of OIP-U was holding a panel discussion that included Kim Kardashian.

Why Kim K?  She had taken an interest in the case of Kevin Keith who was convicted in a triple slaying in Bucyrus in 1994. In fact, it was the first case she had focused on in her new podcast, “The System,” which explored Keith’s alibi. It included interviews with his attorney, his brother and others.

After listening to the entire podcast, I frankly gained new respect for Kardashian for using her celebrity to try to help those who’d been betrayed by the justice system – or who, at the very least, deserved to have their cases reopened.

Kardashian has become very passionate about it and wanted to keep her visit under the radar. In fact, as invited guests, we were given the location only a short time before the panel discussion. Pierce served as the facilitator.

It was last February when Pierce helped to bring to the Mahoning Valley Kevin Richardson of the Central Park Exonerated Five and Laurese Glover of the East Cleveland Three.

At age 14, and after hours of police interrogation, Richardson and four other teens were sentenced to prison for the brutal attack and sexual assault of a jogger in Central Park. Richardson spent nearly seven years in prison before being released, after which, he had to register as a sex offender.

The conviction was finally overturned after another inmate confessed and DNA cleared him. He now partners with the Ohio Innocence Project, working to bring about change in the justice system.

Laurese Glover was 16 when he was arrested. After trial, he spent 20 years in prison for a murder in Cleveland – a crime he did not commit. Through the work of the Ohio Innocence Project, he gained his freedom and is now also a forceful advocate for criminal justice reform.

Meeting Pierce has led me to find my own passion for those who’ve been wrongly convicted. His selflessness and compassion are incomparable. And if there is anything I can do to help OIP-U at YSU, I will be there.

The official announcement of the YSU chapter of OIP actually came earlier in May on a Facebook post on the same day as the Ohio Innocence Project’s 20th anniversary celebration.

In that post, OIP gave shout-outs to several people: “Instrumental in helping to lead the latest effort are YSU faculty members Dr. John Hazy, the acting chair of the school’s Criminal Justice and Consumer Sciences faculty, and Dr. Chris Bellas, associate professor of criminal justice and consumer sciences. Also involved in helping to establish the chapter are Ron Slipski, a Youngstown attorney and lecturer at YSU, and YSU graduate students Priya Dakhal, Charles Sayre, Nino Shubitidze and Dylan Shields.”

The post went on to say that OIP and Youngstown State already share a connection in that YSU is the undergraduate alma mater of OIP attorney Donald Caster. Caster is one of OIP’s four attorneys who take lead roles in shepherding client cases through the post-conviction appeals process.

Several YSU students attended the Unmute symposium last year and heard Richardson’s and Glover’s horrific lived experiences of being wrongly convicted as mere teenagers, spending years in prison, and how that affected their mental health.

Now they’ll join those at other Ohio colleges with OIP–U chapters including Ohio University, University of Akron, and Miami, working right here in the Mahoning Valley on justice reform, educating the community, and advocating for those who deserve another day in court.

For in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”