How Crowdfunding Could Free a Potentially Innocent Man From Prison

A criminal case investigator has launched an Indiegogo campaign aimed at appealing the life sentence of a man she believes was wrongly convicted.
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A criminal case investigator has launched an Indiegogo campaign aimed at appealing the life sentence of a man she believes was wrongly convicted.

In recent months, the “Serial” podcast has captured the imagination of a nation; reaching 5 million downloads on the iTunes store faster than any other program. Collectively, we love crime stories, especially when the person at the heart of the story might be innocent, fighting desperately against a wrongful conviction imposed by a misguided justice system.

Fighting for wrongfully convicted people is a cause that Claudia Whitman, the director of the National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE, has been pursuing her entire career. She doesn’t have the glamour of a nationally syndicated show or the accompanying social media buzz creating financial winds at her back. However, she does have an unvarnished sense of duty and a track record of liberating innocent men and women from bondage.

Whitman has fought against long odds her entire career. As an investigator who specializes in cases helping convicted prisoners get a second chance in court, she’s always been an underdog pushing against a system heavily weighted against the needs of her and her clients, most of whom are underprivileged black men.

So, it made sense when a tech savvy friend suggested that Whitman explore the world of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help support her next venture. Getting a crowdfunding campaign off the ground is a steep challenge for nearly everyone, regardless if you’re starting a new business or trying to rally support for an underfunded cause.

Whitman doesn’t have a lot of financial resources at her disposal. But she’s hoping that the collective power of crowdfunding, and a little generosity from likeminded individuals, could give her client — whom she believes to be innocent — a second date in court and a real chance at justice.

Whitman is asking people to support her Indiegogo campaign to get Lacino Hamilton a second trial. Hamilton, a Detroit native, was convicted of murdering his foster mother and was sentenced to life in prison. He was 20-years-old at the time and has spent the past two decades behind bars. She believes Hamilton’s case was mishandled by a defense attorney with a spotty track record who didn’t give Hamilton the basic legal representation he deserved. Since his incarceration, Hamilton has worked to educate himself on legal issues and has written to a number of advocates to consider his case. An explanation on the Indiegogo fundraising page reads:

“At first, the police picked up someone named Darius (alias) and tried to charge him with the crime. When the police weren't able to charge Darius with the murder they chose to target Lacino, They put Darius in a cell with a known jailhouse informant who had AIDS. The informant tried to elicit a statement from Darius to the effect that Lacino committed the murder. The informant threatened to bite Darius and infect him if he did not sign a statement against Lacino.”

“I’ve been working with various innocents clinics over the years,” Whitman said during a recent phone interview. “Someone from the University of Michigan reached out to me and said he would like to work on Lacino Hamilton’s case but can’t do it for free.”

“I take these cases that nobody is looking at. He’s so pro-active with his case and so knowledgeable politically,” Whitman says of Hamilton. “When deciding which case I’ll work on, it’s really the people who push me the most.”

Whitman has set a $10,000 fundraising goal, which she says will go toward legal fees for lawyers representing Hamilton in court who have already agreed to work at reduced rates.

“I have no experience with this and I’m not a tech person,” Whitman acknowledged.

“I’ve been spending the last few weeks learning how to Tweet and use Facebook. I’m getting great feedback but not much money.”

So far, Hamilton’s fundraising page has taken in about $2,000 from 27 funders. For her public pitch, Whitman is asking individuals to commit $5 to the campaign. She says that if she can raise enough money for Hamilton’s appeal, she would like to continue using the funding model for other worthy cases.

“I felt the most forgotten group is people with life sentences and particularly poor people of color,” Whitman said. “In the Hamilton case, we’ve just found amazing stuff that should get him back into court.”

Hamilton himself isn’t available to conduct interviews for this story or others like it. So, his Indiegogo fundraising page includes testimonials from other individuals that Whitman has helped over the years. 

When discussing what motivates her to pursue these challenging cases with little or no financial backing, Whitman says she has been inspired individuals like Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose 2012 TED Talk on injustice has been watched nearly 2 million times.

During an email exchange with Hamilton, Whitman shared a quote from Stevenson in which he declares, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, it’s justice.” The following is Hamilton’s email response:

“Claudia,

I stayed up last night reflecting on the quote you share with me: ‘The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it's justice.’ I agree.”

“Poverty signifies an imbalance, not only economically and financially, but socially. An imbalance in how resources are controlled, distributed and consumed; an imbalance in how we relate to one another and see each other’s needs just as important as we see our own. The acquisition of wealth would merely perpetuate that imbalance, just in our favor if we happen to acquire it.”

“On the other hand, the essential nature of justice is balance, not punishment and all of the other things we have come to associate with modern notions of righting a wrong. Where there is injustice that means something is terribly out of balance, and justice bring things back in harmony. So, for example, if someone was harmed by someone else, justice would be to repair that harm (perhaps on a material level) to reconcile with it (perhaps on a personal level) and to restore what was lost (perhaps on a social level). Does this make any sense? I hope so.”

“I thank you for sharing that quote with me. While probably small to you, it aided me in making a philosophical/spiritual leap. Thank you. I will have to make it a priority to learn more about Bryan Stevenson and his work. That was my first time hearing of him.”

Learn more about Lacino Hamilton at the Indiegogo page for his case.

Top photo credit: iStock/Mayo76