We had a special presentation Wednesday March 1st , we had a presentation about the wrongly convicted and I was invited to write and learn further after the presentation. As a member of EJC, I was invited to a smaller group talk with the two presenters, Greg Mingo and Christine Bella. This group was chosen to take a deeper dive into some questions we and some others have.
We began with Olivia Peck telling Mr. Mingo about a Civics class project she is leading. It is about how previously incarcerated citizens are not allowed to vote. Olivia wants a universal act that would return these rights to people. Mr. Mingo has been given the right to vote after being granted clemency.
Another point Mr. Mingo brought up is that when the census occurred, since a group of people are in the prison rather than back in their community, the prisons get funding rather than the communities which causes the cycle of crime to continue in that community. Since there are no resources and opportunities for these communities without funding.
Another question brought up by a student was: What are some of your gripes with trials?
Mr. Mingo said that in New York, the defense must go first because of statute and the prosecutors go second, “so it is extremely unfair” for the defendants because the last thing the jury hears is why the defendant is guilty. Austin Kriegel (‘26) said that rebuttals and counters can change the entirety of a debate or case and not being able to do that has an extreme impact on the case. So even in a non-court setting, we can see that going last can have an advantage.
Mr. Mingo then segwayed to another part of the conversation. While when we think about how everyone is innocent until proven guilty is good in theory, he said practicality doesn't really help. So in cases where the defendant is truly innocent, it is flipped. Since we are human, we can assume the worst of someone when they're involved with a crime even if they have not been charged yet. Most people are either not ready or fit to testify to help either prove one innocent or even guilty. In cases of wrongly convicted, even in Mr. Mingo's case, there were false witnesses. This changed the case entirely because without these false witnesses, Mr. Mingo might have never been incarcerated.
Another question asked: What happens when an innocent person confesses guilt?
People are given an offer to plead guilty, which is prior to the case. Mr. Mingo was offered 12 ½ to 25 years to cover all the charges, but he declined. Most of the plea bargains are going to be significantly less harsh then the charge. For those who are truly innocent of the crime, taking this plea may break personal values and this was true for Mr. Mingo. In Mr. Mingo's case, he had a hung jury, which means that there was disagreement among the jury. (In order to charge someone as “guilty,” it must be unanimous).
Mr. Mingo was asked what he would take for the plea and he said “freedom.” He was then charged wrongfully and was going to jail for 50 years to life. Taking a plea is often seen as a heavy factor to saying you committed the crime, but “for innocent people to go to trial, it’s a conundrum,” said Bella. This also affects both parole and clemency. In both situations, you're expected to apologize for your crime, but you're innocent and you try to say you never did it. Some innocent people will say they committed the crime to just get a chance to get out on parole. Once again, in order for a wrongly convicted person to be free, some might have to break personal values to just have a chance of hope.
When asked, “Would you recommend someone like you to take a plea? What would you say?, Mr. Mingo would tell them to not take the plea because personally if he did he would be a disgrace to himself. He cannot blame anyone else who made that choice. Mingo said something extremely powerful during the conversation: “I was ready to die in jail if I had to, because I was innocent.”
Mr. Mingo had a discussion about should clemency be granted would he have to go before the parole board. He was informed it’s up to the governor’s office. Mr. Mingo applied in 2009 by the judge at a resentencing hearing. He was denied and applied again in 2016 and was offered a pro bono attorney. In 2017, someone in Albany, New York, told the prison to choose someone for clemency. Mr. Mingo was chosen but he was not hopeful that he would be granted clemency. Mr. Mingo from 2017 through 2020 kept trying and trying, and was never assigned a lawyer. The Wrongful Conviction Unit of the Legal Aid Society Christine Bella, took on his case and his family created a social media petition that generated almost 145,000, signatures and other people and a couple of celebrities joined in and on August 23, 2021 was granted clemency and on September 16, 2021 was released.
Mr. Mingo was asked if you can have more than two trials, to which he explained that yes, two situations happen where the second trial gets a hung jury. So, theoretically someone could have more than one trail if it turns this way. If the charged person appeals the case and you win, all it does is take the charge away. So the prosecutors keep convicting you and will not stop until they charge you guilty. Judges try to keep errors from influencing the charge and when judges see that it may be too much time has passed it gets overlooked.
As far as the crime for which he had been convicted, Mr. Mingo did not know the victims, but he did know the fellow defendant and this led to Mr. Mingo being charged. Mingo says “ I was convicted falsely based on fairy tales.” Attorney Bella responds with “There were lots of errors and the law was not developed.”