Two out of 120,000

The aim of the nonprofit House of Renewed Hope is to help those who have been unjustly imprisoned and to work to reform the justice system.

JON SHAPLEY/HOUSTON CHRONICLE/AP
Lydell Grant (center) and his mother (left) talk to reporters after his release on Nov. 26, 2019, in Houston. DNA evidence led to another person being charged.

On its most obvious level, this week’s cover story is about two very different men brought together in common cause by unjust circumstances. On a deeper level, though, it’s about a compassion forged in the crucible of loss, and something much more.

Meet Christopher Scott and Steven Phillips, who spent a combined 37 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Mr. Scott grew up in the city, Mr. Phillips in the country. Our Texas-based correspondent, Henry Gass, spoke with them about the organization they founded, House of Renewed Hope. The aim of this small nonprofit is to help those who have been unjustly imprisoned and to work to reform the justice system. 

Exoneration of prisoners has become more commonplace over the past three decades aided in part by the application of DNA testing. 

The first instance of a prisoner being freed based on DNA was in 1989. Three years later, The Innocence Project was founded at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. The aim of the project and many independent satellite groups is the same as that of the House of Renewed Hope: justice, and more justice.

According to The National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,500 prisoners have been exonerated in the United States since 1989, including 367 based on DNA testing. The Innocence Project in New York estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of all U.S. prisoners are innocent. Given that there are some 2.4 million incarcerated Americans, as many as 120,000 may be innocent.

Put that number alongside another: 37, the combined number of years that Mr. Scott and Mr. Phillips spent in prison. Now put yourself in the shoes of Mr. Scott and Mr. Phillips for a moment.

What would go through your mind that first time you were put into a prison cell? What would you feel as the door clanged shut, knowing that you were innocent? And how would you feel, 10 or 15 years later, walking away from that prison? Would you look back? Could you keep from being bitter? 

Texas compensates exonerees with $80,000 for each year of imprisonment. Mr. Scott used his money to fund an organization to find others like him and Mr. Phillips, the wrongfully convicted 5%. They are not only looking back, they are reaching back, using hard-won wisdom to help unjustly convicted prisoners prove their case. 

And bitter? In Henry’s piece, he notes that working at the House of Renewed Hope is purposely flexible, to allow plenty of time for personal commitments. That’s something especially vital for those who were involuntarily kept away from their families. Mr. Scott missed out on most of his two sons’ growing-up years, so he’s making the most of being a grandfather, including taking his 6-year-old grandson for a haircut every week. I won’t spoil the ending for you. To me it reveals a tenderness that makes it clear: There’s no echo of bitterness, either. And that is the even grander lesson here.

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