John Brookins was just 28 years old when he was convicted of a crime that he did not commit. On December 20th, 1990, Brookins bore witness to the murder of a friend, by the name of Sheila Ginsberg. For the last 29 years, he has been in prison for her murder, despite the fact that he has always denied it, and the fact that he passed a polygraph test supporting his innocence in 1991. The failure of justice to prevail in John Brookin’s case epitomizes some of the worst issues of our criminal justice system. Mark Rickles, Brookins’s court-appointed lawyer, had major conflicts of interests, neglected to contact key witnesses that would have supported Brookins’s claims of innocence, and even failed to call on witnesses who had arrived in court on Brookins’s behalf. The Bristol Township Police Department failed to investigate other suspects, including the victim’s daughter, who had a history of violence and struggled with drug addiction and was even seen with blood on her hands as she left her mother’s apartment that night. Brookins had no criminal record, not even as a juvenile, but like so many wrongful conviction cases, racial profiling too played a role––the news clippings from the time assemble the oft-conjured and incredibly racist image of the violent black man standing over the body of the white woman.John’s case was also plagued by dubious missteps by the criminal justice bureaucracy––he was arrested under the probable cause of possessing the murder weapon––something that could not be true, on account of the fact that the murder weapon was found at the scene of the crime. After conviction, John had to wait five years before he was sentenced to life without parole when sentencing is conventionally done within a few weeks of the conviction. That was five years Brookins was in prison without the ability to appeal, or knowing how long he would be there. In short, the criminal justice system’s issues––internal law enforcement issues, overworked and underqualified court-appointed lawyers, racial bias, and bureaucracy––stole thirty years from an innocent man.
And John Brookins isn’t the only one. While it’s next to impossible to know just how many convicted are innocent, Criminal Law Bulletin estimated in 2012 that at least 10,000 people go to prison each year for a crime they did not commit. But despite the grave injustice that John Brookins has faced, he’s remarkably positive––he has become a certified Yoga instructor during his time in prison and teaches other inmates Yoga and fitness. He also works in the kitchen and helps maintain the horticultural nursery. Brookins married long-time friend and advocate for his release Karen Pollard-Brookins in 2018, who, to this day, works for her husband’s release. In 2019, the Innocence Project and the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative took on John’s case. He will go before the pardon board in March. If he is pardoned, he will become the first wrongfully convicted inmate in Pennsylvanian history. It’s easy to become disillusioned with a system that seems too vast and too flawed to ever change. And while injustice is not easily corrected, it can be mitigated by the presence of justice, however late that justice might come. Brookins is the closest he has ever been to justice since that fateful night thirty years ago. Organizations like the Innocence Project and the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative are working to return the system to its original values, one case at a time. But how can you help? Well, a petition to release John Brookins will be presented to the pardon board, and his advocates are trying to get 5,000 signatures before his court date. Every signature counts, so sign it. Share it with others. Raise awareness about his case and the thousands of others like it. Support or get involved with a local advocacy group. These all may seem like small things––a signature, a social media post, a word to a friend––but they can do so much for the people seeking justice.
Learn more about John’s case: https://www.bringbrookinshome.com/Sign the petition for his release: https://www.change.org/p/justice-for-johnny-wrongful-conviction-of-an-innocent-man-innocent-and-wrongfully-accusedLearn more about other cases of the wrongfully convicted: https://www.innocenceproject.org/https://prisonsandjustice.georgetown.edu/