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What is freedom? That was the question I had when I started this project, taking portraits of 12 people who were once sentenced to life in prison and then freed or exonerated.
An exonerated person is one whose conviction for a crime is thrown out. That happens because of evidence of innocence that the judge or jury didn't know about when the person was convicted. The person is then either not re-prosecuted or is acquitted at a re-trial, according to the Innocence Project New Orleans, the organization that represented each of these men in the state court of law (and connected me with the men you'll read from below).
Since 2001, the Innocence Project New Orleans has freed or exonerated 39 people who served more than 922 combined years in prison between Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, time lost to false convictions has exceeded 25,000 years in this country.
Those stolen years are due to a variety of factors: mistaken witness identities, which account for 28 percent of those wrongfully convicted; false confession or admissions; prosecutorial misconduct like Brady Violations, when the state withholds evidence from the defense; and false forensic evidence.
But what's actually stolen can't be measured. Their friends gathered for barbecues and birthday parties. There were first steps for babies. There were weddings and funerals. Meanwhile, on the inside, these men sought some semblance of life. Even if they're still making sense of what was lost, each of them now say they are glad to be on the outside, despite all they missed over the years.
Since their release, Robert Jones and Jerome Morgan have become dedicated activists in New Orleans as the founders of Free-Dem Foundations, a nonprofit organization advocating for "disregarded" youth. One of their mentees is headed to Harvard University in the fall. Both men are pillars of the community. They spent a combined 43 years in prison for murders they did not commit. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Jimmie Bass has a smile that radiates joy. He served 18 years and 21 days for murder after a mistaken eyewitness identification. These men have found freedom in ways those of us who haven't experienced prison, whose lives haven't been irreparably harmed by an unjust legal system, might never understand.
I admittedly didn't know much about the legal system when I began what was supposed to be portrait work as a photojournalist. The photographs I take are a documentation of the encounter between the subject and myself. I spend time getting to know the people I capture, and I hope they feel as if they've gotten to know me, too. In relationship, and in the work itself, this is an effort to dispel the myths of New Orleans—and surrounding areas—by focusing on its people. And I hope to give everyday people a platform and connection to a larger audience.
So, I asked: "What does your freedom mean to you?"
These are their replies.
All photos by Jason Kerzinski. These personal letters have not been edited. Hover over or tap the scanned letters to reveal and read the full text.