A “Declaration of Innocence” document presented by the CEO and founder of Seattle-based Judges for Justice to two men at a dinner on the evening of their release from Ohio prisons was a fitting closure to their 24 years behind bars for a crime they had nothing to do with.
Michael Heavey, former Washington state legislator and retired King County superior court who created Judges for Justice (JFJ) a decade ago, presented the document, signed by him and three other retired judges to Karl Willis and Wayne Braddy Jr,
The two Toledo men, convicted in early 2000 of the 1998 murder of 13-year-old Maurice Purifie, ‘were grateful to have four judges proclaim them 100 percent innocent,” Heavey remarked following the dinner.Karl Wilis (L), Mike Heavey, Wayne Braddy and Deborah Fleck in front of Ohio courthouse
As the two men emerged from court the morning the judge pronounced them free to go, they wore gray hoodies emblazoned with the initials O.I,P., standing for the Ohio Innocence Project, which had launched the effort to free the men, in cooperation with the retired judges group.
The O.I.P effort was spurred by former King County Judge Deborah Fleck and her son, Tyler Fleck, who is married to a cousin of Braddy. Fleck challenged the prosecutor by writing behind-the-scenes letters questioning the convictions while her son created a website, www.freewayneandkarl.com, and they helped turn the tide.
The final chapter came to be written when Ohio Innocence Project deputy director, Jennifer Bergeron, contacted local Toledo TV station WTOL 11 in 2019. Brian Dugger, an award-winning investigative journalist, spent hundreds of hours investigating this case. WTOL aired his broadcast, Guilty Without Proof,, in August of 2019 and aired an update in August of 2020, bringing public attention to these wrongful convictions.
For years, Lucas County prosecutor Julia Bates staunchly defended the aggravated-murder convictions. However, in open court on March 28, Bates supported Braddy and Willis being released, noting that the case had attracted the attention of "retired judges from far away from Ohio.”
Karl Wilis (L), Mike Heavey, Wayne Braddy and Deborah Fleck in front of Ohio courthouse
What Heavey refers to as “turning the court of public opinion” is the process by which Heavey approaches cases Judges for Justice has decided are instances of wrongful conviction.
Heavey’s premise has always been that “the vast majority of people are good, honest, and kind. And once educated, they will not tolerate an injustice in their midst. In the end, the good people of Ohio, friend-to-friend and neighbor-to-neighbor, saw the injustice and demanded it be rectified. The public swell to right the injustice motivated the prosecutor to do the right thing.”
Heavey’s organization’s effort to create public support for the wrongfully convicted is almost the reverse of what got those people to prison in the first place.
As he has explained it: “any shocking crime generates fear in the community. Fear generates pressure on law enforcement and that pressure leads to what we call a ‘wrongful conviction climate’ where pressure leads to tunnel vision and its perverse by-product: noble-cause corruption.”
The Ohio case is the second high-visibility victory for Judges for Justice this year.
The January exoneration and release from prison of Albert “Ian” Schweitzer, a native Hawaiian man, after he had served 21-plus years of a 130-year sentence for the 1991 kidnap, rape, and murder of 23-year-old Dana Ireland on the Big Island drew national attention.
Heavey noted that “our 14-part documentary, Murder in Hawaii, seen by thousands of Big Island residents, changed public opinion from ‘They are cold-blooded killers’ to ‘they are innocent men wrongfully convicted.’”
As part of the public pressure Heavey mounts, he noted that “at the end of episode 11 we give the names, addresses and phone numbers for the prosecutor, mayor and police chief. We then tell viewers if they believe the case should be reopened and the real killer be pursued, please contact these offices.”
“There were over 37,000 views of Episode 11 and if just one percent, 370 people, contacted them, they would have been inundated with calls and letters,” Heavey said with a chuckle.
But there was no reference during the dramatic final court proceeding in which Schweitzer was released, nor in the media coverage on national tv news or newspapers from Seattle to New York, of the part Judges for Justice played in turning public opinion in Hawaii in Schweitzer’s favor.
And that represents one of the key challenges for Heavey’s organization: It lacks sufficient visibility with much of the financial support coming from retired Washington State superior court judges.
In addition, former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander has been supportive “with advice and dollars” and former Justice Richard Sanders has also been supportive, Heavey said.
He notes that Judge Jay White (ret.), a Kent resident and former King County Superior Court judge, “has been an unofficial co-CEO of JFJ for the past four years and is my right arm and backbone.”
Thus it may be appropriate to celebrate the 10th anniversary of JFJ as an occasion to launch a fund-raising effort on the group’s behalf. That’s likely to be quickly echoed by his close supporters and friends, like U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a close friend since they were freshmen in the state house of representatives in 1987 and prominent investor John Rudolf, who has already expressed interest in such an effort.
Both are part of what Heavey refers to as his "bucket brigade" of donors.
A last case on JFJ's list, for now, is the case of Patty Rorrer, serving two life sentences in Pennsylvania for the 1994 murder of a woman and her infant that snagged worldwide attention during the search for the missing woman and baby.
More than 20 years after her conviction, JFJ is helping to build the case that she was innocent.
I have done several columns on Heavey and his organization in recent years and have been continually surprised by the fact that in an era where concern about injustice to minority-community members has soared, attention to Heavey’s organization has not.
I recently asked Heavey, 76 and a decorated Vietnam veteran, if there are other cases around the country of wrongful imprisonment that he could get involved in and he said: “there are dozens of requests from around the country” out of, he guessed, “thousands.”
“I’d love to have the funding for us to pursue 20 to 40 cases where we believe the person is innocent,’ he added.
The case that provided the launch for Judges for Justice was one with the highest possible visibility, the trial, conviction and imprisonment of his daughter’s high school friend, Amanda Knox. After Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were arrested in Italy in 2007 for the murder of her roommate, Heavey believed her innocent and got heavily involved in turning back Italian justice.
Heavey and others from more than 5,000 miles away in Seattle helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of Knox and Sollecito. Knox and Sollecito were finally freed in 2011 after serving four years in Italian prisons.