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Sunday, March 30, 2014

UVA Innocence Project: John Grisham, Edgar Coker Jr., Brian Banks and Michael Hash

 
Exonerated men share their sagas    By Pamela Gould              March 29, 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Six weeks after being exonerated of rape and getting his name removed from Virginia’s Sex Offender Registry, Edgar Coker shared the spotlight with NFL free agent Brian Banks and novelist John Grisham. 

It was a dramatic turn of events for the former Stafford County resident who spent the past seven years shunning attention because of the label of rapist legally attached to his name. 

But in Banks, Coker found someone who understood. 

“It’s a relief to finally find someone who knows what I actually went through, being locked up for nothing. That’s special,” said Coker, 22. 

Both Banks and Coker were teens when they were accused of rape by an acquaintance. For both, it was the accuser’s recantation that started the exoneration process rolling. 

And for both, it was the work of an Innocence Project that led to their names finally being cleared. 

That’s what brought Banks, who lives in Los Angeles, and Coker, an Orange County resident, together this week and what led to them being seated on either side of Grisham on Wednesday evening for an Innocence Project fundraiser at the University of Virginia School of Law.
 

Grisham, who lives in the Charlottesville area, is a former trial attorney best known for a string of successful legal thrillers.

But it was Grisham’s work on the “The Innocent Man,” a nonfiction work about an Oklahoma man wrongfully convicted of capital murder, that opened his eyes to a different side of the law. 

During a decade in Mississippi courtrooms, Grisham said he never heard of anyone innocent being convicted.

“Most people don’t believe it until they meet someone like Brian or Edgar,” he said to the crowd at U.Va. 

Grisham serves on the board of the original Innocence Project in New York and said he’s heard estimates that between 2 percent and 10 percent of people in prison are innocent. But he said they have little recourse to get their situations corrected. 

He called the attorneys and students who work at U.Va.’s Innocence Project Clinic “warriors” and said they—and others like them across the country—need financial support for their work to help the wrongfully convicted. 

“There’s no money for innocence work,” Grisham said. “Our system is not designed to get innocent people out of prison.” 

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE 

Michael Hash spent nearly 12 years in prison before a federal judge set aside his 2001 conviction for the murder of 74-year-old Thelma Scroggins, calling the Culpeper County case a “miscarriage of justice” and harshly criticizing the prosecutor and investigators. 

In August 2012, five months after he was released from a Virginia prison with help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a special prosecutor said he had no evidence to retry Hash, but left that door open. 

As a result, Hash, who turns 33 next month, remains out of work, collects the equivalent of food stamps, and continues to live with his parents in Louisa County. 

“It’s disheartening, mainly because you’ve overcome one hurdle, just to get out and realize you’ve got more to overcome,” said Hash, who attended Wednesday’s event in a pristine black suit, lilac dress shirt and striped tie he bought at Goodwill. 

The current bright spot in his life is girlfriend Patricia McArtor, whom he’s known since before his arrest.

And each year he attends the annual Innocence Network Conference that recognizes exonerees from around the country.  

He hopes that if he can prevail in a federal lawsuit he has filed against Culpeper officials and if he can get his record expunged, that life could improve. 

MAKING PLANS 

Edgar Coker’s legal saga began on June 4, 2007, when he was 15 and a 14-year-old neighbor accused him of breaking into her home in North Stafford’s Aquia Harbour and raping her. 

He pleaded guilty to two felonies in juvenile court to avoid the risk of getting convicted as an adult and sent to prison for years. 

He was incarcerated in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility when his accuser told her mother she and Coker were friends and she lied about the rape to avoid getting into trouble. 

The mother then sought legal advice on how to rectify the situation and in January 2009, a team of attorneys led by the Innocence Project at U.Va., along with the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic and JustChildren/Legal Aid of Charlottesville began working on Coker’s behalf. He finally got a full hearing on his case last July and a ruling in his favor came six weeks ago. 

On Feb. 10, Judge-designate Jane Marum Roush ruled that Coker’s trial attorney violated his constitutional right to effective counsel and then overturned the convictions and ordered his name removed from the state Sex Offender Registry. 

At the end of February, the state attorney general’s office told Coker’s team it would not appeal the ruling. Then on March 1, Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen notified them that he would not retry Coker, putting an end to his legal nightmare. 

Coker surprised his mother during an interview this week by saying that he’s begun making plans for the future, including setting aside money from each paycheck to take his parents and brothers to the beach this summer. 

He said that speaking with Banks this week was encouraging and that it had renewed his interest in basketball and in the music and poetry that were his outlet when he lived life holed up in the many places his family resided during his legal ordeal. 

SPEAKING OUT TO HELP 

Brian Banks was 16 years old, attending summer school before his senior year and had been offered a football scholarship to the University of Southern California when his world was upended by a rape accusation. 

Hours after he and a classmate had “made out” on school grounds on July 8, 2002, he was arrested and wasn’t free again until Aug. 29, 2007. 

He was on parole and online looking for work one day when he got a Facebook friend request from his accuser.

Stunned, he didn’t at first know what to do, but he prayed for guidance and then moved forward. 

He spoke to her that day and learned that she was hoping they could “let bygones be bygones” and now get together again socially.

He was floored. 

But she then agreed to meet in person and they did at a private investigator’s office where the meeting was videotaped and she admitted she’d never been raped. 

The California Innocence Project used that evidence to get him exonerated in May 2012, which is why today Banks wears a blue rubber bracelet on each wrist with the group’s name. 

“It’s a reminder for me,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “At one point in time, I had handcuffs on my wrists. Now I have freedom on my wrists.” 

Banks also still wears the high school ring that shows three straight state football championships—for all but the senior year he spent in prison.

But he said he’s not bitter. 

“I’m a firm believer that I’m the sum total of all my life experiences,” said the 6-foot-3 linebacker. 

In 2012, after he was exonerated, he got a call from Pete Carroll, the former USC coach who has gone on to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Carroll invited him for a tryout. Other teams did too. 

Last April, the Atlanta Falcons signed Banks but he was let go in August at the end of the preseason, leaving him in free-agent status. 

Banks may give football another try in 2015 but said, for now, his mission is to tell his story and seek support for Innocence Projects around the country so others like himself can get the legal help they need. 

 

Edgar Coker hobnobbing with John Grisham, NFL free agent Brian Banks, March 27, 2014