One Day, They Arrest You…
Can you imagine being unjustly accused of murder? At first, you might not be too worried, sure that the truth will set you free. If you’re poor, you might not care whether the court appoints you a good lawyer, because you know you were home with your friends at the time of the murder.
Surely this is a big mistake, and will be over quickly, right?
That’s what Gary Drinkard thought. But then his own half-sister, facing charges in an unrelated robbery, made a plea deal: she’d testify against Gary in exchange for dismissal of all charges against her. Her common-law husband, also implicated in the robbery, joined her in fingering Gary.
Then Gary’s lawyers failed to even interview the people Gary was with at the time of the murder. They failed to call to the stand the physicians who would have testified that Gary’s back injury made it impossible for him to have committed the murder. Worse, the police themselves bruised Gary and then exhibited his bruises as proof that Gary had fought with the murder victim.
Before he knew it, Gary was on death row, awaiting execution.
Gary Was One of the Lucky Ones
Naturally, Gary appealed. For years, the verdict against him was upheld.
Then, fortunately for Gary, some excellent volunteer lawyers joined his case. They won an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. He was granted a new trial on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct. He won his case. After 6 years in prison, he was released.
The Story Isn’t Over…
There are 130 people in the U.S. who, like Gary, were released after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. (Others weren’t so lucky. Their exonerating evidence came to light only after they were executed.)
You might think, “Well, once you’re released, the story is over. You get back to your life.”
For many of those 130, you’d be wrong. Their years in prison not only disrupted their lives, they disrupted their faith in society. Many are so angry that they have turned to drink or drugs. Others have lost all that mattered to them before their wrongful conviction. The life they might “get back to” no longer exists; or they can no longer live it.
But Gary isn’t one of those. Gary has channelled his outrage into a cause. And his chief weapon in this fight is his story.
Helping Them Tell Their Stories
Last weekend, I travelled to Philadelphia to coach Gary and seven others like him on telling their stories. Even though they have all done public speaking (through the organization Witness to Innocence, http://www.witnesstoinnocence.org) I gave them the key tools I give any beginning (or advanced) storytellers: tools for imagining, remembering, organizing and adapting their stories.
Like others I have worked with, these eight exonerees took well to what I taught. A little suspicious at first (after what happened to them, they’re suspicious of everyone!) they left feeling empowered to make their stories fit their cause, their purposes, and each unique audience.
A Brotherhood of Heroes
But for me, this group was unlike any other. As I see it, these men are truly heroes. They have travelled past the boundaries of ordinary life, conquered a dragon of injustice, and returned to offer us the elixir of their truth.
This group was founded to bring their stories to the world. But it has also functioned to bring the exonerees to each other. And they are desperate to know each other.
Can you imagine? You’ve experienced a waking, multi-year nightmare. Wouldn’t you be thirsty to meet others who had experienced something similar? These men have gained solace and strength from being brought together.
To me, these men are heroes in another way: they are fiercely protective of each other. They have formed a brotherhood of death row exonerees, a brotherhood of witnesses to injustice. A brotherhood of storytellers.
The Power Made Visible
I felt honored to be allowed to enter their circle for a weekend. As I left, I could tell they were excited about applying what I had taught them, in order to tell their stories even more effectively.
Even more, I had experienced the power of storytelling, yet again. I saw how it helped these men individually. I also saw how it helped them form a brotherhood and maintain their focus in the wake of their suffering. And I heard how it was changing society.
Their strength seemed to infect me. I felt even more determined to share the transformative power of well-told stories.
How about you? Are there stories that you have lived, witnessed, or heard, that the world needs to hear?
Like these witnesses to innocence, are you willing to put yourself out there, so that your stories can strengthen others?
And are there others like you to join with, so that, through your stories, you can help each other become ever more determined and bold?
2) DO YOU WANT TO LEARN WHAT I TAUGHT THEM?
If you’re interested in the basic storytelling principles, tools, and exercises I taught last weekend (see the article above), they are contained in the Beginning Storytelling Toolkit.
And the Beginning Storytelling Toolkit is now available, for the first time, in hard-copy form: eight CDs plus a notebook of handouts and transcriptions.
Read the details at http://www.storydynamics.com/begin
Yours in storytelling,