Durango Herald


Mancos woman works to free innocent prisoners across the country

By Jonathan Romeo Herald Staff Writer | Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 10:55 PM

Claudia Whitman
Claudia Whitman in her home office near Mancos, Colorado.

Bernard Young was behind bars for nearly 30 years for a crime he claimed he didn’t commit when his family, in a last ditch effort, called Mancos resident Claudia Whitman.

Whitman, who runs the Colorado-based nonprofit National Capital Crime Assistance Network, spent the next six years working on Young’s case, trying to prove the innocence the Detroit man has maintained since the 1980s.

And on Feb. 8, the effort seemingly paid off: Young, 58, had his first taste of freedom when a judge released him on bond, months after Whitman was able to secure a recant of testimony from the two victims Young was accused of molesting in the 1980s, when the now-adult males were ages 5 and 6.

“Everyone I had approached, they just didn’t want to touch it,” said Young’s sister, Joyce Holman. “It was such a web that no one wanted to untangle.”

“But I just couldn’t let my brother sit there in jail and be sentenced for something he did not do,” she continued. “Claudia took an interest. And now, she’s become almost a family member. We just love her for her commitment to my brother, and to this family. She just believed in us.”

For the last 25 or so years, Whitman, who resides north of Mancos in a cabin near Joe Moore Reservoir, has fought to help prove the innocence of imprisoned people who have exhausted all other resources. Whitman is originally from Los Angeles, but lived the majority of her life in Maine before moving to Southwest Colorado nearly 25 years ago.

An artist by trade, Whitman, 74, became involved in the work in the 1990s while participating in other social justice issues, which included representing persons on death row.

She obtained her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Goucher College in Baltimore, and a BA in painting at the Maine School of Art. She taught art at a boarding school in Vermont, as well as two stints volunteer teaching and working as a translator in Nicaragua.

Her social justice work started with Equal Justice USA, later taking a leadership role with the death penalty chapter of CURE. She then became involved with the Innocence Project at the University of Houston, investigating death penalty and life sentence cases before starting her own nonprofit.

Although she works about 60 hours a week on cases, she has never taken a salary. With no formal legal training, she said she’s always learning on the job. And to cover expenses and hire lawyers, she modestly fundraises throughout the year.

Whitman receives more than 100 requests a year from prisoners or their family members seeking her help. She’s able to take on only one to two new cases a year, but always makes an attempt to steer prisoners and their families to other resources.

Whitman works from her Mancos home, but makes frequent trips to visit her clients, the majority of whom are incarcerated in Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.

And over the years, while it’s impossible to quantify how many people Whitman has helped directly or indirectly, she’s helped free about seven people who claimed innocence from prison.

In Young’s case, Whitman tracked down testimony that showed the two boys in the 1980s, about a month after accusing Young, told police it was their mother’s boyfriend who had molested them.

The boys said the boyfriend threatened to kill them and their mother if they told the truth – information that was not made available during Young’s trial in the 1980s before he was convicted and sentenced to 60 to 100 years in prison.

Whitman tracked down the accusers, now adults, who signed affidavits confirming it was not Young but the boyfriend who had committed the abuse. The boyfriend has since died.

Young, who awaits a new trial in June, already has a new job in construction. His sister said despite being robbed of most of his life, Young harbors no bitterness.

“He’ll never recover the 27 years he’s lost, but this is a new beginning,” Holman said. “There’s just joy for life, and this opportunity for him to be with his children and grandchildren.”

Charles Wakefield Jr. was sentenced to death in the killing of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and his father in South Carolina in the 1970s. Although his sentence was commuted to a life sentence, Whitman worked nearly 13 years to prove his innocence.

While Whitman, who single-handedly runs her nonprofit but works with various lawyers and advocates, was unable to get Wakefield exonerated, he was released on parole in 2010 when a key witness recanted his testimony. Wakefield had spent 35 years in prison.

“Claudia – she’s one of those people that when she starts working on a case, she pretty much gives it everything she’s got, and she’s not going to give up,” Wakefield said. “The whole thing is bittersweet. It was like being born again.”

According to the Innocence Project, 2.3 to 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners are innocent, and with about 2.4 million people in jail, that comes out to about 120,000 innocent people. In 2015, a record number of people were freed after serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.

Facts like these keep Whitman going, but also draw an immense amount of frustration from the Mancos woman about the judicial system, as well as the prisoners she’ll never be able to help.

“The worst part is there’s so many people you have to tell you can’t help them,” she said. “They may be absolutely innocent, but it’s a question of whether or not you can prove it.”

Whitman, in her free moments, walks her two dogs at least four times a day, rides horses and spends time with her husband, Laird Carlson, who works at Adaptive Sports Association. She volunteers at the Raven House Gallery in Mancos, still painting, which is one way to “keep sanity and balance,” she said.

Whitman said watching prisoners she’s helped be released from jail is a mixed bag of emotions.

“There’s just so many people innocent in prison, and it’s frustrating,” Whitman said. “But then when you get a success like this and see joy in their hearts, you get more out of it than you ever put in.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Innocence Projects
Truth in Justice