The Defenders Clinic project hires two people it supported on their pathways to freedom
Lorenzo Johnson and Greg Mingo know more about the need for compassion, freedom, and effective legal representation and assistance than any law school could ever teach. They are two of the newest staff members within the Second Look Project: Beyond Guilt (SLP:BG), operated by CUNY Law’s Defenders Clinic, which supports people serving life or long-term sentences with their applications for and pathways to freedom.
“I jumped at the opportunity with SLP:BG because I was once the person serving a Natural Life Sentence with NO PAROLE who sent over 1500 letters out for help to various people on the East Coast, West Coast, Down South, and across the country,” shares Johnson. “So, to be able to assist a man or woman to regain their freedom and become productive citizens —I’m all in.”
As Senior Advisors to SLP:BG, Johnson and Mingo work on clemency applications and advocacy campaigns for others who are still incarcerated. Their lived experiences are critical to driving change not only for thousands of incarcerated individuals inspired and motivated by the story of Johnson and Mingo’s returns home, but also to New York State’s efforts to change how the criminal legal system and public alike consider pathways to freedom, including clemency applications, parole preparation and litigation, compassionate release requests, and resentencing motions in court. To begin to address the injustice of mass incarceration, policies and systems must also look at what can be done for the thousands of people serving lengthy, harsh, or no longer appropriate sentences, too.
“The work we do is critical not just to the idea of fairness, but to make it a reality,” says Mingo. “In this country, the symbol that represents the criminal justice system is a statue of a blindfolded person holding an uneven scale in one hand and a sword in the other: a truth lived every day in Black, Latino, poor, and impoverished communities. If the idea of rehabilitation has any meaning, if there is a belief that people change, then that belief becomes perverted if people who have earned a second chance are denied it.”
For Mingo, who received clemency on August 23, 2021, after serving more than 40 years of a wrongful conviction following a 50 years to life sentence, the daily work is focused on building power through coalition. Mingo’s efforts while incarcerated led to an outpouring of support for clemency. His change.org petition alone received tens of thousands of signatures. He is a Community Leader for Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) and volunteers his time building transitional housing for Hudson-Link for Higher Education in Prison Project. He is actively pursuing exoneration.
Johnson’s path to advocacy began after 22 years behind bars for a wrongful conviction. In 1995, Pennsylvania police told him they believed he had murdered someone. Incredulous, he explained he had been in New York City, with people who could vouch for him. Nevertheless, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the 16th year of his sentence, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. For the next 148 days, Johnson lived as a free man until—without briefing or argument—the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s decision and reinstated the conviction. It would take six long years before new evidence demonstrated Johnson had been telling the truth, and that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence. Ultimately, against his deepest moral misgivings, Johnson eventually agreed to a nolo contendere plea under threats of continued prosecution. He, too, continues to fight for full exoneration.
The team at SLP:BG also includes Legal Fellow and alumna Calla Wilson-Traisman ’19. Wilson-Traisman comes to the project after working as a public defender in New Mexico and Missouri. While in the Defenders Clinic, they helped two people receive clemency. Both were serving 50 years to life sentences and, but for clemency, would certainly have perished in prison.
The SLP:BG was recently celebrated by Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), an organization created in the aftermath of the Attica uprising, as one of the demands of the Attica Brothers was that adequate legal assistance be provided to all who request it. SLP:BG accepted an award for its remarkable work on behalf of people serving life or long-term sentences. To date, SLP:BG has helped bring home sixty people, but the team is keenly aware that much, much more needs to be done to rectify the crisis of mass incarceration.
“The award from PLS is especially meaningful given its history and ongoing efforts to offer assistance to those in prison and to hold the Department of Corrections accountable,” says Professor Steve Zeidman, Co-Director of the Defenders Clinic and the Second Look Project. “Thanks to the addition of people like Greg, Lorenzo, and Calla, and the ongoing passion and commitment of the Defenders Clinic students, the SLP:BG looks to expand its capacity and assist more people pursuing ways to extricate themselves from life behind bars.”
“It’s vital to have people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system lead the charge for change,” adds Mingo. “They didn’t just survive, they thrived.”