Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard invited a few hundred people to a banquet Wednesday to celebrate his office’s new Conviction Integrity Unit.
The unit is the first of its kind in Georgia and aims to examine Fulton’s potential wrongful convictions, as well as cases where people may have been ordered to serve unfairly long sentences.
Howard used the event at Tyler Perry Studios to announce one of the unit's first actions.
Howard looked into the audience of several hundred and called onto stage Darrell Hall, 52, who the DA’s office sent to prison in 1991 on a life sentence. He served 13 years before getting parole. He went back to prison twice through the years for parole violations. The violations, Hall said, were failing to pay his fines and fees.
“I’m almost ashamed to tell you what he was convicted for,” the DA said, pausing a beat before revealing: “Two grams of cocaine.” (The conviction was possession with intent to distribute.)
The Conviction Integrity Unit learned of Hall’s case last year -- Hall doesn’t even know how they heard about him -- while he was serving his latest prison stint. In December, the DA’s office went to court to have Hall’s life sentence tossed.
The 52-year-old Atlanta native walked out of Dodge State Prison on Dec. 13. Howard said he recently heard Hall was having trouble finding a job, so the DA’s office talked to Tyler Perry, the media mogul known for random acts of philanthropy.
“Mr. Perry says you can start to work on Monday,” the DA told Hall, whose mind seemed to be reeling on stage as the crowd rose and applauded.
Aimee Maxwell, the unit’s director, made clear the DA’s office intends to help a lot of people like Hall. There are many people in Georgia prisons for crimes that would’ve led to much lighter sentences nowadays -- even probation.
Then there are people who are totally innocent.
“How many innocent people could be in prison?” said Maxwell, who is also former executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project. “Prison is bad when you did something to be there. Imagine you are trapped in this prison…and you know you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N Ambassador Andrew Young, the event’s keynote speaker, praised the DA’s office for what he called necessary work.
“We have got to continue to perfect this system,” he said, citing generations of systemic racism and poverty as drivers of injustice in the justice system. “And we’ve got a long way to go.”
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To decide which cases to take up, the unit has an eight member panel to review applications. The members are: three Fulton prosecutors, a defense attorney, an attorney from the Georgia Innocence Project, a local minister, an attorney or administrator from a local college or law school and an attorney from the Georgia chapter of the NAACP.
The unit has already been looking into the case of Leo Frank, the Jewish Atlanta factory boss who in 1913 was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, 13, and was subsequently lynched in Cobb County. It's also examining the Atlanta Child Murders cases.
After the banquet, Hall still seemed to have trouble processing the events of the past two months. First he hears that the DA’s office wants to help him out of the blue. Now he’s going to work for Tyler Perry.
“It’s a blessing,” he said, leaving it at that.
Howard had handed Hall a slip of paper with the name and number of a man who Perry said could fill him in on the new job. Howard didn’t say what the job would be.
Hall said he didn’t care.
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