The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) is using a sizable grant from Venable to establish an endowment that will help exonerees from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia get back on their feet after their release from prison. The endowment, named the Venable-Burner Exoneree Support Fund, will provide social services, behavioral health counseling, job placement assistance, and advocacy training.
The fund is named for Venable and its client, Troy Burner, who spent more than 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Tried as an aider and abettor in a fatal 1990 DC shooting, Burner was convicted on paper-thin evidence, namely the ever-changing story of a cooperating witness who, hoping for leniency in his own murder case, falsely testified to Burner's presence at the crime scene. Working alongside MAIP co-counsel, Venable attorneys Seth Rosenthal and Lauren Stocks-Smith helped secure Burner's release in November 2018 and then his full exoneration in March 2020.
Earlier this year, Burner received $5 million from the DC government to compensate him for his unjust incarceration. Venable will donate at least $500,000 in attorneys' fees from Burner's case to establish the Support Fund. As an endowment, the Support Fund will invest the contribution from Venable, rather than draw all of it down, and operate off of the investment income. The income will principally be used to hire a social worker to help exonerees adjust to life outside of prison. It will also be used to teach advocacy skills. Some exonerees, including Burner, have become effective spokespeople for reform of the criminal legal system. The Support Fund will help others who wish to follow suit.
"From its inception, MAIP has represented individuals with bona fide claims of actual innocence and advocated for changes in law and policy to prevent wrongful convictions," Rosenthal said. "But MAIP has not had the capacity to provide comprehensive, direct support to its clients following their exonerations. Now it will. This new program is a game changer for the organization." Rosenthal has been a member of MAIP's board of directors since 2006, serving as board chair from 2016 to 2020.
MAIP Executive Director Shawn Armbrust thanked Venable, saying, "The adjustment to life outside prison is challenging for all returning citizens, but exonerees have suffered additional trauma and have needs that traditional reentry services – which often are not available to them – cannot address. Thanks to Venable, our clients will have the support they need to rebuild their lives and, if they desire, use their experiences to advocate for reform."
MAIP and Venable have had a long partnership. Since 2008, Venable has worked with MAIP to free five innocent DC men – Aaron Michael Howard, Edward Bell, Gary Gathers, Gathers' co-defendant Keith Mitchell (represented by co-counsel at Miller Chevalier), and Burner. Together, these five men spent more than 100 years in prison. Currently, Venable is working with MAIP on another case. In 2009, MAIP awarded Venable its Defender of Innocence Award for the firm's work on the Howard case, which Rosenthal and Venable partner Moxila Upadhyaya litigated. Venable attorneys have also helped MAIP screen a number of potential claims of innocence. Since 2010, Venable has contributed nearly $100,000 to MAIP through Venable Foundation grants and event sponsorships.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project's primary mission is to secure the exoneration and release of persons who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and who are serving sentences in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Since its inception in 2000, MAIP has helped free 42 innocent men who served more than 800 years in prison, becoming one of the most successful innocence organizations in the country.
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