On Wednesday, March 1st, we had the pleasure of having two special guests come and speak to the Upper School. Greg Mingo, a wrongfully convicted man who was in prison for over 40 years, and Christine Bella, an attorney who works in The Legal Aid Society Wrongfully Convicted Unit in New York, both spoke about their experiences.
Christine Bella, who is Ms. Higgins's cousin, works with clients who have been wrongfully accused of crimes, many of whom have spent decades in prison. The Legal Aid Society Convictions Unit helps 20-25 people per year, and although that may not seem like a lot, the process is time-consuming. The first step to start the process is writing to the unit to explain the situation and some background information about the case. Next, Attorney Christine and her coworkers, along with many volunteers, screen the case. This involves reaching out to witnesses that were involved and searching through public records. Unfortunately, wealth and class play a large role in the legal system and this creates inequality between the two, as the wealthy have more resources than the lower class. Attorney Christine explained that being rich and guilty has more options than being poor and innocent. When you have less money, you have fewer resources and therefore a lower chance of getting justice. This leads to being more at risk for a wrongful conviction because you do not have an equal opportunity to defend yourself as the wealthy do, and if you do not understand the system, it can create more legal problems.
Greg Mingo, an ambassador for the Innocence Project and the co-founder of a clemency collective, spent over 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Mingo shared his experience with the Upper School and told his story of how he got justice. He was arrested in 1981 for the accusation of killing two people that occurred the year before and was given no bail. He went to trial twice, the first trial was a hung jury which led to a second trial, and he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. When he was put in prison, he tried to advocate for himself and when that didn’t work he started to educate himself about the judicial system. Not only did he want to help himself, but he wanted to help to work to get other prisons sentences reduced. Mr. Mingo explained that being in prison is not difficult because of the physical aspect, but because of the mental and emotional aspects. The fact that you have no say in your life and routine, and that someone else is telling you what to do, really impacts your own mind. But he also said that, “the only way to get out was to keep fighting,” and so he did.
After 40 years, one month, and 21 days in prison, he was a free man. At first, he didn’t believe anyone who told him that he was being released, and even when he first stepped foot outside, he didn’t think it was real. The world felt like a whole new place and part of him was sad to leave behind the relationships he had built. However, he took a lot away from the experience of being wrongfully accused. Mr. Mingo said, “What I learned in there was that helping others helped myself,” and when he was released, he thought a lot about what he would do with the rest of his life. He knew that he wanted to help people who were in situations like him, and give other innocent people a chance to get their cases heard. He believes that if someone can turn their life around in prison, they deserve a second chance, and I would agree. Mr. Mingo has an amazing mindset when it comes to helping others and he described it perfectly when he asked, “If we are not here on this earth to help support and uplift each other, then why do we exist?” His question made everyone stop and think about the world we live in and how in and out of the Wooster community, support is needed everywhere. Mr. Mingo believes that, “We need to care more about how we see each other and treat each other,” and that “It takes a community to help people.” He realized that he was most shocked by the amount of love and support everyone gave him on his journey out. He talked about how thankful he was for all of that love and how his whole experience, while it wasn’t something he would wish on anyone, really changed his outlook on life.
Mr. Mingo ended with some advice for all Wooster students, faculty, and staff: Get involved in any way you can. Something similar to his story could happen to someone you know or care about, so stay focused, and stay alert. Choose your friends wisely and make sure you surround yourself with people who will love and support you, no matter what. Even if you think you are too young, or too small to make a difference, help in any way you can because you never know what a small action can do.