At our annual benefit dinner on Wednesday, EJI honored Debbie Berkovits, who championed the release of the man who shot her during a robbery attempt when he was 13 years old, with our 2017 Champion of Justice Award. EJI recognized Ms. Berkovits’s extraordinary act of forgiveness and celebrated 16 clients who stand as remarkable witnesses for the power of hope, redemption, and reconciliation.
EJI client Ian Manuel was sentenced to die in prison for shooting a woman during a robbery in Tampa, Florida, when he was just 13 years old. He became one of the youngest children condemned to die in prison in the United States. Because he was a very small boy, state prison officials decided to place Ian in solitary confinement, where he remained for the next 20 years. With few contacts on the outside, Ian reached out to the shooting victim, Debbie Berkovits, to ask for her forgiveness, which she gave. A remarkable relationship emerged in which Ms. Berkovits became a supporter for a reduced sentence for Ian.
Ten years ago, EJI took on Ian’s case as part of its effort to end excessive punishment of children. EJI ultimately won major victories in the United States Supreme Court requiring states to resentence children condemned to die in prison and banning life without parole for children like Ian who were convicted of nonhomicides. EJI won Ian’s release in 2016 after 26 years of imprisonment. On the day of his release, Ian celebrated his freedom by having dinner with Ms. Berkovits and EJI staff.
Ms. Berkovits told attendees at this week’s benefit dinner that forgiveness should not be so rare or extraordinary as to merit an award. She shared how her childhood in an unforgiving family prepared her to accept Ian’s apology, and how she became his advocate and friend upon recognizing his gifts as a writer and poet. Ms. Berkovits concluded her moving remarks by asking Ian to come on stage so she could give him a hug.
Sixteen EJI clients were individually recognized at the event, including Diane Jones, who was released from Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women after being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole six years earlier for a crime she did not commit; Kuntrell Jackson, whose death-in-prison sentence for an offense at age 14 was vacated after EJI appealed to the Supreme Court; and Beniah Dandridge, who was released on October 1, 2015, after EJI presented evidence that exonerated him for a murder for which he spent 20 years in prison, and was tragically killed in an auto accident in January.
Bringing all of the client honorees on stage, EJI Director Bryan Stevenson told the audience that if grace, or redemption, or rehabilitation were ever put on trial, his first witnesses would be the people standing on the stage: the formerly incarcerated, the condemned who’ve been resurrected from death row, children told they would die in prison, those who have suffered through condemnation and have been told their lives don’t have meaning and purpose, and yet persevered to be free. They are witnesses to the power of grace, redemption, and hope, he said, because they remained hopeful in dark and hopeless places when intellectually they had no reason to be.
The evening featured a photographic exhibit sharing the stories of people impacted by the legacy of lynching in America, and a model of EJI’s forthcoming National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which will commemorate more than 4000 people who were killed in racial terror lynchings between the Civil War and World War II. Attendees learned about the work of EJI’s Community Rembrance Project through short films about the dedication of markers that memorialize lynching victims and the collection of soil at sites where lynchings occurred.
With energizing performances by recording artists RAII and Whitney and NeeCee Trott, the event was the most well-attended in EJI’s history. We are honored that so many people were moved to attend the dinner and we are deeply grateful for your tremendous support.