The evening’s event started off with a bang, as Jay Swearingen introduced the Midwestern Innocence Project, and its related goals and objectives of freeing innocent men— from the tortures of being falsely convicted. Daryl Burton and Josh Kezer, who were recently released from long terms in prison, ( 24 and 16 years respectively ), were among the honored, exonerated people attending the featured fundraiser. Also included was Ellen Reasonover— who had spent 16 wrongful years for a murder she knew nothing about—who now resides in St. Louis, and, Johnny Briscoe, who had spent 24 years for a bogus rape charge he knew nothing about.
Master of Ceremonies, Ida Goodwin Woolfolk, started the evening’s event off by introducing Dennis Fritz, author of Journey Toward Justice—the co-companion book to John Grisham’s, The Innocent Man. Dennis took the podium and began to tell a shortened version of the terrible nightmare he had went through—of spending 12 years in prison after having been falsely convicted of 1st Degree Capital Murder. The crowd became very silent as Dennis spoke of the tremendous hurdles and obstacles he and his family had to overcome.
Dennis then blended his very painful circumstances to begin his introduction of John Grisham, and how his writing of The Innocent Man, has had a tremendous, positive impact upon our justice system. As Dennis shared his story of how he had met John, and worked with him during his writing of The Innocent Man, one could feel a stirring in the crowd—that was filled with anticipation and eagerness— to see and hear Mr. Grisham speak. Since John and Dennis had done several fundraisers before, it was easy to sense the already-developed friendship between the two.
Upon being introduced, the crowd roared with delight and exhilaration as John walked up to the podium. After Dennis and John hugged while passing the microphone, Dennis was called back to the podium and a celebration cake was brought out in his honor for his 10th year of freedom. A thunderous round of ovation filled the ballroom as Dennis finished blowing out the candles. What a wonderful touch for a perfect evening. As always, John displayed his eloquent demeanor and speaking ability, as he began describing, in detail, his writing of The Innocent Man. The crowd was entranced from the very beginning, as John conveyed to the audience how he had first gotten the idea, to write his first non-fiction book—after having read an obituary in New York City about the death of Ronnie Williamson.
As John continued to speak about his overall experiences in writing, The Innocent Man (and the reasons why), the crowd drifted into a noticeable, relaxed state due to John’s easy-going and down-to-earth manner. The audience’s pedestal perceptions had now faded. Now, the greatest legal-thriller writer in the world—whom everyone idolized—had also become in everyone’s mind and spirit, a real-to life person who shoots straight from the hip, without any pretense, whatsoever!
More than anything else, everyone in the audience became aware of what John was really all about:
He not only was able to talk the talk, but also, there was no doubt that he could walk the walk— by being a true, blue advocate of overall, by-the-book justice.
Next, the special awards ceremony began by commemorating the following attorney’s:
Cheryl Pilate, who was responsible for the exoneration for Ellen Reasonover and Darryl Burton ( in conjunction with The Centurion Ministries-Jim McCloskey ), Shawn O’brian, who pulled Joe Amrine out of prison after having served 25 years, and Attorney Charlie Weiss, who was directly responsible for helping to exonerate Josh Keezer.
Chris Koster, Missouri’s 41st elected Attorney General, then took the stage and acted as the auctioneer for the evening’s event. What a smashing success! An entire collection of Grisham’s originally-printed books, were sold to the highest bidder for a substantial sum of money.
Also, Steve Stolze who owned a condo in Hawaii, allowed it to be auctioned off for a substantial amount of money. Next, a dinner for six (6) with Robin Carnahan—Missouri’s Secretary of State—was sold to the highest bidder.
All of this auction money went to the Midwestern Innocence Project for their costly work of freeing wrongfully-convicted people. .
The finale of the evening’s event was an announced invitation for the 5 falsely convicted people ( including, Dennis Fritz ) to come to the stage— carrying a piece of paper with their prison numbers written on it— and after giving a brief, verbal description of what they had been charged with, and how much time they had wrongfully spent in prison, they raised their arms and ripped their prison numbers into. The crowd clapped loudly as each inmate delivered his ceremonial announcement of freedom. Wow!
What a powerful evening it was—for the cause of justice and freedom!
CLICK HERE for great photos of the event