A year ago, Aisha Robertson stood outside the Justice Center with an almost life-size poster of her brother, Dwayne Brooks, asking that he be freed from prison for a crime he did not commit.
On Monday, her brother stood next to her and shared some of his story of being wrongfully incarcerated.
Brooks was one of several exonerees who spoke outside the Justice Center on Monday, raising awareness on International Wrongful Conviction Day. Several dozen people gathered to show support.
More than a third of those exonerated in Ohio since 1989 were convicted in Cuyahoga County, according to the national registry of exonerations.
Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens (EPIC), a nonprofit prisoner rights advocacy group, hosts Cleveland’s rally every year. The group has been the local organizer since 2019. Jeanna Kenney founded EPIC in 2017. She is fighting to free her husband, who she says has been wrongfully incarcerated.
In 2001, Peter Kenney Jr. was convicted in Cuyahoga County of aggravated murder and kidnapping.
Jeanna Kenney said taxpayers are paying for lawsuits when law enforcement, prosecutors and court officials make mistakes.
“Nobody’s being held accountable,” Kenney said.
‘They took my whole life’
About a year ago, Kenney learned about Brooks’ case and reached out to his sister to support her in pushing for Brooks’ release.
Brooks spent 35 years in prison, convicted of aggravated murder in connection with a shooting at Luke Easter Park on Aug. 17, 1987. In April a judge granted Brooks a new trial, and his case was dismissed Sept. 22.
“It is an absolute honor and privilege to see you standing here free today,” Kenney said before handing Brooks the microphone.
Before taking the mic, Brooks shared a tight hug with his little sister.
Brooks said his sister became his biggest advocate. Robertson encouraged people in the crowd to speak up for their loved ones in prison and to connect with others in the same fight.
“What I learned going through this is I was not alone,” Robertson said.
Brooks said he’s looking forward to spending time with his three children and four grandchildren. He said no amount of money could make up for the years of his life that were taken.
“There’s no justice,” he said. “They took my whole life. They took all my youth. I lost so many loved ones and family members that I’ll never see again. My children grew up without me.”
The National Registry of Exonerations tracks the time people have lost to wrongful convictions. The almost 3,400 cases the registry lists total more than 30,000 years lost to wrongful imprisonment.
Black people make up less than 14% of the U.S. population but account for more than 50% of exonerations, according to a 2022 National Registry of Exonerations report.
A bigger calling
Kenny Phillips and Michael Sutton made headlines after their release two years ago. Both were 18 when they were convicted of attempted murder. Both shared their stories with the crowd.
Phillips said he feels the trauma of his experience every day. He was hesitant to go to the rally Monday because just being near the Justice Center brings back bad memories.
He and Sutton and their lawyers at Friedman, Gilbert + Gerhardstein are now suing the state of Ohio and the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas for wrongful imprisonment.
On Monday, Sutton walked around holding his baby girl, smiling as he talked to friends and family. Sutton said he feels as though he has a bigger calling and wants to be an activist and continue to share his story.
“I want to help fight the injustice,” he said.