Criminal justice reform has drawn increasing public attention across the country in recent years. The award-winning film “Just Mercy,” released last December in the midst of these vocal discussions about reforms, depicts the fight one lawyer has been making for decades to address these problems.
A Columbus screening of the film, followed by a panel discussion, drew not only dozens of lawyers but also two Ohio Supreme Court justices. The panel at Friday’s event, organized by the Ohio State Bar Association, featured Justices Patrick F. Fischer and Michael P. Donnelly.
The film chronicles lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s work in the early years of the Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded, and focuses on Walter McMillian, one of Stevenson’s early cases. McMillian was wrongfully convicted of murder in Alabama, where he spent six years on death row – 15 months of those before his trial.
“The movie represents the real truth of the system,” Justice Donnelly said. “There’s an imbalance of power in the criminal justice system.
“It should be required viewing for every single judge who takes the bench in Ohio.”
Justice Fischer mentioned his personal experience with the criminal justice system as a child. In the eighth grade, he had to testify at a trial for his brother, who was found not guilty.
“I think the system generally works. Do things go wrong? Absolutely. Do we need to stop [the wrongs]? Yes,” Justice Fischer said.
He stressed the need for quality legal representation.
“When there are good lawyers on each side of a case, you get good results,” he said. “Whether rich or poor, we need to make sure that everyone has access to good lawyers.”
The panelists discussed the Supreme Court’s task force on wrongful convictions recently announced by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. The Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review will analyze the post-conviction review processes in Ohio and other states, and review the work of innocence commissions and conviction integrity units of other states, among other duties.
“I hope the Ohio Supreme Court does what needs to be done,” said panelist Ian Friedman, a Cleveland criminal defense lawyer.
Friedman also complimented Ohio’s progress.
“Not a lot of states are making the advances that Ohio is.”
Jennifer Grant, who is an assistant city prosecutor in Columbus, noted that support for changes in the criminal justice system come from all corners, including judges, public defenders and defense counsel, and prosecutors.
“Justice reform isn’t about what side you’re on,” Grant said. “It’s about justice.”
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