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Cohen and Newton

Challenging the System: Williamsburg Prep Students Take on Wrongful Convictions

Through an innovative teaching method adopted by English teacher, Alison Cohen, Williamsburg Prep students are learning to become active participants in a democracy by studying wrongful convictions and the criminal justice system.

As part of one of the non-fiction units of the English curriculum, Cohen is teaching the various ways individuals are often incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, as well as reforms that can be adopted to mitigate and eventually eliminate such problems. As part of their final project for the unit, students will draft and send letters to their State Senators asking them to back bills to prevent eyewitness misidentification and wrongful convictions.

“I want to help my students to be able to advocate for themselves,” said Cohen. “It is valuable for them to learn that they have a voice to make change and I hope this lesson serves as a reminder for them to feel empowered to make change.”

Most importantly for the students, a speaker series organized by Cohen allows them to interact directly both with people who have misidentified their attackers and those who have been wrongfully identified.

On Thursday afternoon, Cohen’s class was visited by Alan Newton, who spent 22 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. He engaged the students by narrating the specifics of the crime, about the time he spent in jail, and the effects his incarceration had on his family. He then fielded questions from students.

One of the students asked him if he felt angry either toward the victim or towards his situation.

“At first I was totally pissed off,” Newton said. “But then I realized if I continued to be angry I would not be able to grow and move forward. The anger would have been made turn to drugs and other things. For me the most important thing was trying to prove my innocence.”

Another student asked him about how he kept his hopes alive in prison. Newton credited his family with helping him live through the ordeal. Newton lost both his parents in the course of his incarceration, but said he always had a close-knit group of cousins, nephews and nieces who stood by him until the very end.

The most valuable part about speaking with young students, Newton said, was making them realize how important it was for them to take charge of their lives and to become aware of the pitfalls to which young people are often vulnerable. On a personal level it serves as a form of therapy for Newton.

Newton’s visit was preceded by a Skype conversation Wednesday with Jennifer Thompson who wrongfully identified her rapist and sent an innocent man to a life term in prison. Thompson and the man she misidentified, Ronald Cotton, who was later exonerated through DNA evidence, wrote a New York Times bestseller chronicling their experience and the process of forgiveness. For the students at Williamsburg Prep it was a chance to understand the victim’s perspective and how the psychological impact of the trauma can impact the victim cognizance.

So far there have been 314 post-conviction DNA-based exonerations in the United States, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic working to fight wrongful convictions.

Cohen said she was inspired to organize the unit around wrongful convictions due to her own experience with a similar curriculum in high school. While she was a student in Washington D.C. she attended a talk by a man who had been wrongfully convicted and had been saved from the death sentence just 48 hours prior to his scheduled execution. It made Cohen realize that the criminal justice system was heavily stacked up against people of color. With a population made up of more than 80% students of color, Cohen’s wrongful convictions lesson aims to become a powerful tool to empower change.

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