According to 18th century judge, jurist, and politician William Blackstone in his treatise on the common law of England, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Prussian Statesman Otto Von Bismarck, on the other hand, believed “it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape.”
Both my grandmother and grandfather strongly believed in protecting the rights of innocent people, and would have strongly identified with William Blackstone. In fact, my grandmother once remarked that she was glad O.J. Simpson was found innocent even though his guilt was likely because she did not believe there existed sufficient evidence. Unfortunately, I never had a relationship with my grandfather because of a stroke that he suffered at about my age, leaving him significantly physically impaired. Yet one could argue that his stroke served as a great gift, as it led him to embrace Christian Science which helped him gain a sense of renewed purpose for the last 50 years of his life that he managed to get through without ever seeing a doctor until the very end because of his steadfast belief in the body’s natural ability to heal. This heightened sense of self also led him to visit people in prison who were wrongfully convicted with the hope of lifting their spirits. I remembered him visiting with people, but it never occurred to me to understand why until recently when I mentioned to my parents that I wanted to help free wrongfully convicted people from prison and raise awareness about the issue.
I had specifically mentioned a wrongfully convicted man I read about on the Northwestern School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions website by the name of Darby Tillis, who my parents informed me happened to be the same man that my grandfather had visited! Feeling this revelation represented more than a mere coincidence, I felt compelled to learn more about this man and continue the work of my grandfather, but sadly, Mr. Tillis passed away in November 2014, so I never had a chance to ask him if he remembered my grandfather, and other questions like if the songs he wrote or being a harmonica player had anything to to with my grandfather’s visits (my grandfather played the harmonica too).
Per Darby Tillis’s website:
“He was sentenced to death in Illinois October 15, 1979 and was among one of the first to be exonerated from death row. New evidence led to his release January 21, 1987. Tillis, in 2007 “Celebrated 20 Years of Freedom.”
He was a fiery and outspoken advocate of the abolition of the death penalty and for a fair and just judicial system. He wrote, directed and produced a one-man play, “Dead Wrong,” “Death Row Blues.” As songwriter, harmonica player and singer he produced a CD about his death row experience and his life afterwards called “Death To Life.” In an interview in the April 2007 publication of the New Abolitionist asked about his inspiration he answers, “Each day, I look for a different twist as to how to expose the horrors of death row and the flawed system to the public. My CD was singing. The play is singing and dramatizing the pain and the hurt that was done to me by the system. It’s another way of opening the door for people to peep into this painful ordeal.”
In 2006 Tillis played the role of Stanley Tookie Williams in a reenactment of a botched execution that led to California’s moratorium on the basis of cruel and unusual punishment. In 2007 Tillis testified before the Senate Finance Committee in in support of an abolition bill in Illinois saying “The time to abolish the death penalty is now!” In November, 2007 he joined with 17 death row exonerees in Raleigh, N.C. in a call for a moratorium on executions in that state.
He has preached, worked and walked among gang members and drug abusers, fed the homeless and helped the fallen and oppressed as founder and director of WXO.FM, working with Ex-offenders and Family Members. He continued to speak throughout the country at colleges, to youth groups, churches and abolition groups. Most recently, he began a Death Row Shuffle Tour speaking and singing in high schools to youth groups in communities impacted by the criminal justice system through a grant (Fire This Time Fund 2008 Funded Project) with the Campaign To End The Death Penalty. “The hope is that youth will learn from Darby’s personal experience, songs and storytelling and feel empowered to organize themselves and as agents of social change.””
Because of my own personal struggle, I can relate to both my grandfather and Darby Tillis, who each turned what would likely have seemed to many as an insurmountable challenge into an opportunity for transformation and a quest for inner peace. While not being able to sleep through the night pales in comparison, because the issue has persisted for nearly eight years and exhausted most of my savings, it still feels significant enough to mention, especially because although I have not turned to religion, I have nonetheless used this experience in a similarly transformational manner and developed a growing awareness of what it means to be healthy.
For this reason, I could think of no better topic than wrongful convictions as the subject of my first community engagement dinner, which I intend to turn into a series of substantive discussions of pressing issues affecting our communities, much like the discussions taking place as part of the events hosted by Chicago Ideas, except that I will be using consciously sourced shared meals as the foundation to stimulate conversations. I hope each of you will consider attending and sharing with others as well as continuing to be a part of the community I’ve built and that you will remember people like my grandfather and Darby Tillis.
Here are the details:
Topic: Wrongful Convictions
Speakers: Judy Royal, Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Women’s Project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which she co-founded with Professor Karen Daniel in 2012 and Kristine Bunch, a client of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, who languished behind bars for more than 17 years
Date: Monday, April 25
Location: Local Foods – 1427 W. Willow St.
Special offers for attendees: $10 all purchases of $50 or more at Local Foods (coupons will be handed out at the dinner and can be redeemed any time)
Sign up here
Paul Sippil, CPA, Community Organizer, and Crime-Fighter